Book: Brian Hill
Music and Lyrics: Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman, with new music and lyrics by Neil Bartram
Based on the Novels of Mary Norton and the Disney film
Directors: Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison
Bedknobs and Broomsticks has often been regarded as the poor relation to Mary Poppins. Indeed the story goes that Bedknobs and Broomsticks only went into production because Disney were starting to give up on getting the rights to Mary Poppins, which was a project they had high hopes for and which had a similar cinematic theme of live-action mixed with animation. It’s little wonder, then, that Bedknobs and Broomsticks has taken a good while to make it onto the stage, but now it’s arrived it offers a good mixture of spectacle and entertainment which a younger audience, in particular, will find appealing.
We start in wartime London, where the three Rawlings children have been bombed out and lost their parents in an air raid. Evacuated, they find themselves living with Eglantine Price. She is a mysterious figure who turns out to be an apprentice witch, having studied via a correspondence course hoping to help the war effort. When she learns that her school is closing down, they all travel back to London to find the headmaster, one Emelius Browne, who reveals that he thought it was all a scam, and he’d been teaching nonsense words that he found in an old book – though he doesn’t have all the pages. Desperate to find the final spell that could help to win the war, they join forces and hunt for the missing part of the book.
Dianne Pilkington leads as Eglantine Price, the role originally created on film by Angela Lansbury. These are pretty big shoes to fill and Pilkington manages it admirably, bringing the essence of the character to life and adding her own touches to it. Her vocals are flawless and her resulting characterisation is spot on, Initially brusque but gradually taking to the children as she gets to know them. Alongside her is Charles Brunton as Emelius Browne, that archetypal eccentric Englishman who’s a bit of a con artist and thief but turns out to have a soft side. Brunton inhabits the role perfectly, providing an excellent companion for Pilkington’s Eglantine Price.
Conor O’Hara plays Charlie, the eldest Rawlings child. Fresh out of drama school O’Hara finds his character well and driving forward quite a lot of the plot – though he does struggle to maintain credibility as a thirteen-year-old, particularly when he reaches the slightly truculent teenager scene when he’s started to stop believing. No doubt this won’t be the last we see of O’Hara though, as his maturity in this, his first professional role, will carry him through. The two younger children are played by a rotating team. On press night we saw Evie Lightman and Jasper Hawes, both performing with confidence.
A lot of the production relies on spectacle and illusion, and it is outstanding while occasionally tongue in cheek. We’re all used to seeing flying cars and carpets on stage, and here we have a bed. Where these things often appear in only one or two scenes though, Bedknobs and Broomsticks offers them throughout – not only the bed but a whole series of illusions, including a magic broomstick with a will of its own. Some of them work better than others, and some should be rethought, like the miniature flying Miss Price held up by an actor, which adds little and causes some audience amusement. The battle scene may also benefit from a little rework – it’s not apparently meant to be a send-up, but occasionally drifts too far in that direction.
With a few hummable Sherman Brothers tunes and a good dose of spectacle, Bedknobs and Broomsticks offers a solid evening’s entertainment. It may not have the longevity of some of the other screen-to-stage adaptations, but it’s certainly well worth catching.
Runs until 10 October 2021 and on tour