Original Music & Lyrics: Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
New Songs and Additional Music & Lyrics: Neil Bartram
Book: Brian Hill
Based on the Novels of Mary Norton and the Disney film
Directors: Candice Edmunds & Jamie Harrison
REVIEWED ON OPENING NIGHT – 14th AUGUST 2021
Within the Disney hierarchy, the film Bedknobs & Broomsticks has always been looked upon as the poor relation to Mary Poppins. This opinion is not without merit: as well as being thematically similar, Bedknobs originally went into development at the time when Walt Disney was struggling to secure the rights for Poppins from P.L. Travers, and was eventually made in the immediate aftermath of Walt’s death when the studio was in creative turmoil. Poppins was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five, Bedknobs was nominated for five and won one (for visual effects). Both films were directed by Robert Stephenson, feature extended sequences in animated worlds and have scores by the Sherman Brothers. And now with the debut of this production, they share another commonality: they are both the basis of stage musicals by Disney Theatrical.
Premiering at Newcastle Theatre Royal prior to a UK tour suggests that Disney are less confident in the success of this show than with something like Frozen which strides directly into the West End next week. However, for the most part these apparent concerns are unfounded as Bedknobs and Broomsticks lives up to its tagline of being a “magical musical”. Like the film version, it will come up short with comparisons to the stage version of Mary Poppins (also about to fly back into the West End), but taken on its own merit it has great potential to develop a following and become a staple in Disney’s ever-expanding theatrical repertoire.
Closely following the plot of the film, which in turn was based on several books by Mary Norton, Bedknobs and Broomsticks follows the three Rawlins children as they are evacuated from the London Blitz to the small coastal village of Pepperinge Eye. They are reluctantly taken in by spinster Eglantine Price who it is soon revealed is an apprentice witch, studying via correspondence school in hopes of assisting the war effort with magic. Her spells, while not always reliable, do work and when the she is informed suddenly that the school is ceasing her lessons, the four of them travel to London (via magical flying bed of course) to meet the school headmaster Emelius Browne. Here they hope to secure the final spell which can bring inanimate objects to life, which Miss Price is convinced will help win the war.
It should be stated upfront that this production looks spectacular. Jamie Harrison’s set and props are designed with a ‘pop-up book’ aesthetic that works extremely well and allows effectively simple workarounds for some of the story’s bigger set pieces – the children’s initial evacuation from London and an early tour of Miss Price’s house being excellent examples. Gabriella Slade’s costume design is equally striking.
The small cast are very good. Diane Pilkington has an excellent balance of sharpness and warmth for Eglantine and she has ample opportunity to display her considerable comic abilities, carrying almost the entire show in the process. Charles Brunton’s Emelius Browne is a little more eccentric and manic than David Tomlinson’s film version and although it works well on stage, it often feels than he is struggling with the myriad of magic, movement and patter that he frequently has to deliver all at once. Of the Rawlins children, two of them cycle between four different child performers with all of them no doubt being as excellent as those that took the roles on opening night, and eldest child Charlie is played with cheeky charm and tons of energy by Conor O’Hara.
Anyone who says that the songs from the film are not very memorable should tell that to the numerous audience members who seemed to involuntarily join in with the opening lines of The Beautiful Briny, and others such as Portobello Road, Substitutiary Locomotion and the haunting The Age of Not Believing all stick in the mind long after exiting the theatre. Neil Bartram’s new songs fit amazingly well alongside those of the film with nice catchy tunes and a healthy dose of the wordplay that the Shermans were so famous for. The script mainly remains faithful to the movie although despite the plot revolving around events of World War II, it has a frustrating reluctance to mention Nazis or Germany by name, the dialogue being carefully written to only refer to them as variations of the “looming menace” from “over there”, and when the invasion happens there is nary a swastika in sight.
The plot obviously calls for a large number of magical effects. From flying broomsticks and beds, to moving inanimate objects, plus multiple cases of people being turned into rabbits and back again. The effects (again from Jamie Harrison) are for the most part excellent, and while sequences such as the rabbit transformations often feel a little prolonged, these will no doubt become smoother and slicker as the show’s run continues. The story’s first use of magic comes with the song A Step in the Right Direction, during which Miss Price enchants, battles and finally tames a mischievous broomstick. The superb effects are brilliantly complimented by the catchy song and a strong comedic performance from Diane Pilkington to create literal stage magic – although unfortunately this early highlight is rarely equalled and never bettered for the rest of the show. This is indicative of the entire production which starts extremely strongly but seems to lose its way early in the second act. The act two opener involving an adventure under the sea with a host of glowing fish is wonderful, but then leads into a clumsy scene involving talking animals (which has been simplified from the film’s complex soccer match) which doesn’t really work mainly thanks to an inexpressive and largely static lion puppet. The rest of the second act then attempts to add some depths to the characters and plot with extra dialogue and several ballads, but this is too little too late and this only manages to slow the pace of the show down until it reaches its strangely messy climax involving an enemy invasion, and a horribly misjudged final twist and epilogue that should be reworked as soon as possible.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a work in progress and no doubt will evolve over time. The opening night performance was generally slick, professional and most importantly magical, and while some slight issues with the script can be (and should be) ironed out, the overall aim of the show is to entertain, enchant and enthral – which it manages to do extremely well.
Runs until 21st August and then tours the UK