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
The life of the Rawlins children – Charlie, Carrie and Paul – is about to change forever. One night during the war they go to bed as usual only for a bombing raid to kill their parents and destroy their home. In a terrific opening sequence devoid of dialogue, we see the incident through their confused eyes as they are shifted about by adults with good intentions, eventually evacuated to Pepperinge Eye, huddling on the station alone and nervous. This sequence sets the tone – set elements move on and off stage fluidly, carried by tightly choreographed members of the ensemble and driven by an insistent beat. Jamie Harrison’s set design enables a dreamlke quality, drawing us in to the children’s eye view of the world, while retaining a frame of ruined masonry, an ever-present reminder of the situation at the time.
Thirteen-year-old Charlie (Conor O’Hara) steps up as leader the family: this is an adventure, one in which they don’t need to answer to anyone. His song, Nobody’s Problems, is multi-layered, revealing his need to reassure his siblings alongside his own, entirely understandable, insecurities. Ultimately, they children are whisked off to their new home (another memorable sequence recreating the feel of a wild motorcycle ride) with the eccentric Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington). She has a secret – she is studying a correspondence course to become a witch, and with some success. She plans to use a particular spell to help win the war and reduce casualties. But it’s missing from her course, leading her to seek out the course leader, conman Emelius Browne (Charles Brunton), flying to him with the children on a bed. When Browne can’t help, the intrepid quintet sets out on a heroic quest with the children at the centre to find the spell.
Visually, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a delight from start to finish. Neil Bettles’ flowing choreography complements the taut direction of Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison. The magic – including Eglantyne’s first foray into broomstick flying and the flying beadstead – is, well, magical, supporting the story well. And then there’s the puppetry: it’s all superb, but special mention must go to the lion that is King Leonidas (given booming voice by Matthew Elliott-Campbell) and Sherman the bear, both excellently anthropomorphised.
While Bedknobs and Broomsticks is clearly aimed at a younger audience, the depth of characterisation of the central characters and their situation ensures that there’s plenty for the adult to mull over. O’Hara brings out Charlie’s desperate attempts to suppress his own fears as he cares for his younger siblings. The growing relationship – initially somewhat distant – between Eglantyne and the children is well mapped out with Pilkington bringing a charming eccentricity and almost benevolent schoolma’amish feel. Emilius’ growth from conman to altogether good egg is demonstrated to good effect by Brunton. And, of course, they all have great voices, hitting the notes square on, the songs carrying the story and giving an insight into the developing relationships.
Overall, this has something for everyone. We’re told the film was delayed time and again because of similarities with Mary Poppins, but this stage production stands firmly on its own two feet and is a masterpiece on its own terms.
Runs until 14 November 2021 and touring