Book: Brian Hill
Music and Lyrics: Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman, with new music and lyrics by Neil Bartram
Directors: Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison
In the darkest of hours, we all need something to believe in: the kindness of strangers, positivity makes the impossible possible, that good can conquer evil. Magic. If ever there were a time to immerse yourself in the glory of music, the warmth of colour and the comfort of good old nostalgia, it’s now. This stage adaptation of Robert Stevenson’s 1971 film classic about three children evacuated to the countryside for safety, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, aims to bewitch the hardest of hearts and turn back the clock on anyone who thought they’d reached the age of not believing.
Paying homage to its silver screen origins, this new production attempts to brew together everything that made the original film such a firm family favourite and transform it into a spectacular theatrical experience with a new slightly altered plot, that delves much, much deeper into the murky depths of life at war. The enemy is no longer named but replaced with a heavy, looming darkness that descends during a wordless prologue and thanks to Simon Wilkinson’s inspired lighting design never fully lifts throughout. Having an enemy that transcends a specific time and place but is never fully exposed is truly unsettling, yet we are teased with only glimpses of the personal impact the darkness creates, meaning the opportunity to explore the effects further isn’t fully utilised.
Taking on the musical masterpieces of legendary maestros The Sherman Brothers is no mean feat, and one Neil Bartram’s score doesn’t quite achieve. You are unlikely to leave the theatre humming the new songs, and while some parts blend seamlessly and complement the originals beautifully, others like Act 2’s Nobody’s Problems threaten to grind the already lagging pace to a halt. Quite simply they lack a certain magic.
Jamie Harrison’s set and illusion designs are both the villain and hero of the show. While the illusions draw audible gasps and leave you to wake in the wee small hours to ponder just how they did it, there just aren’t enough of them and this includes the bed’s limited flight path. While the bomb-damaged set does a brilliant job of reminding us that the looming darkness is omnipresent, Candice Edmunds’ direction leaves the action rather muddled. The continuous parade of props by an ensemble that seems to spend more time as stage crew makes things feel cluttered and intrudes on any tender moments. In contrast, the battle scene is in desperate need of more bodies. It lacks a sense of urgency and rather than feeling under siege, the battle comes across as more of a late-night scuffle.
The performances by an undoubtedly talented cast are a real mixed bag of tricks. Dianne Pilkington is practically perfect (sorry, wrong show) as the apprentice witch Eglantine Price. Almost too perfect. Her performance is meticulously polished and performed with such precision there is never any fear of her putting a foot wrong, yet this somewhat dampens the excitement of such a wonderfully quirky and unpredictable character. As the bargain basement magician Emelius Browne, Charles Brunton brings a much-needed injection of fun and mischief. Gone is the stuffy suit and middle-class gentry of David Tomlinson’s film portrayal and is instead replaced with a character reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke’s cockney chimney sweep in that other film – albeit with a better accent.
As the younger children Carrie and Paul, Polly Houghton and Aidan Oti are fantastic. Their innocent, optimism and bravery shine through their wonderfully natural performances. As a trio though, Conor O’Hara brings the dynamic out of balance. His exaggerated performance jars with the honesty of Houghton and Oti, his facial expressions cartoonish and focus pulling.
Fresh from their (thoroughly deserved) WhatsOnStage award win, Rob Madge gives a star turn as Norton, A Fish. The combination of Neill Bettle’s slick and purposeful choreography, Kenneth Macleod’s incredible puppet design and Gabriella Slade’s luscious costumes makes Act 2’s Nopeepo Lagoon the highlight of the night.
With a few tweaks, three taps and a quarter turn, Bedknobs and Broomsticks could be a truly outstanding creation. It has all the key ingredients but just needs the correct spell to perfect the potion. And when it does, oh how it will soar, higher than a newly qualified witch on her brand-new broomstick.
Runs Until 5 March and touring