Bedknobs and Broomsticks

February 18, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Spellbinding

Festival Theatre: Wed 16 – Sun 20 Feb 2022
Review by Martin Gray

Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the musical based on the 1971 Walt Disney film, flies into the Festival Theatre for a short but spellbinding stay, until this Sunday.

The most common question about the film is whether it is a sequel to Mary Poppins. It isn’t, but you can see where the confusion arises – both have a magical middle-aged lady at the centre of things, cute kids at her side, catchy musical numbers and a mix of live action and animation.

Dianne Pilkington takes to the skies. Pic: Johan Persson

Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which is based on a pair of Forties children’s books by Borrowers creator Mary Norton, begins in an altogether darker place. No lovely Edwardian London here, but the Big Smoke during the Blitz where a bomb hits the home of siblings Charles, Carrie and Paul, killing their parents.

Evacuated to the countryside, the children are taken in by eccentric Miss Eglantine Price. She’s doing her bit for the war effort by taking a mail-order witching course, so she can ward off any coming invasion. But she still needs a final spell from her magic teacher in London, Professor Emelius Browne.

How to get there quickly? Well, Miss Price does have a transportation spell which just needs something that can be twisted. Like a bedknob perhaps?

dance contests

The quest takes Miss Price, Charles, Carrie, Paul and new friend Emelius from
Portobello Road to the land of Nopeepo, via a lagoon where dance contests between aquatic lifeforms are the norm.

Directed by Candice Edmunds and created in association with Disney Theatrical Productions, the show is awash with effects by illusion designer Jamie Harrison, Edmunds’ co-partner in Glasgow-based Vox Motus.

The Bedknobs and Broomsticks company. Pic: Johan Persson

People turn into rabbits, suits of armour come to life, a broomstick zips around the stage and the famous flying bed thoroughly convinces amidst the darkness and smoke of Harrison’s set (although the actual bedknob could use a tad more oomph in the glowing department).

And when the tricks aren’t super-slick – a tiny puppet on a stick shows Miss Price trying out her broomstick, for instance – the audience is in on the gag.

Differently magical are the performances. As Miss Price, experienced West End leading lady Dianne Pilkington resists any temptation to ape Angela Lansbury’s memorable screen portrayal… and ends up thoroughly in the realm of Poppins.

Pilkington plays her perfectly

Why not? It suits the character and Pilkington plays her perfectly, gradually taking to the three scruffy kids who are happy to blackmail her the minute they learn she’s an apprentice witch.

Pilkington has a marvellous stage presence and her gorgeous voice anchors the action with real charm. The warmth she produces with the show’s best song, The Age of Not Believing, is just what is needed on a stormy winter’s night.

The Flying Bed. Pic: Johan Persson

Charles Brunton also impresses as the charming charlatan Emelius, surprised to learn that the magic ‘tricks’ he sells actually work when the bearer has enough faith. The professor quickly forms a formidable partnership with Miss Price and is embraced by the siblings.

Matching the adults in the charisma department is newcomer Conor O’Hara as oldest sibling Charlie, a cheeky chappie whose skill in the art of ‘Negotiality’ gives us one of the better new songs provided by Neil Bartram.

Izabella Bucknell and Aidan Oti, one of four pairs of young actors playing Carrie and Paul, are terrific, keeping up with the adults and even performing a few magic tricks themselves.

Standing out amidst an outstanding ensemble are Jacqui Dubois as head of the local evacuation committee Mrs Hobday and Susannah Van Den Berg as frighteningly funny farmer Mrs Mason. They return for the big musical numbers, the best of which are the spectacular Portobello Road and the try-not-to-sing-along Beautiful Briny, both Sherman Brothers numbers from the movie.

distracting

As well as popping up where people are needed, the ensemble members are used throughout as scene shifters, puppeteers and even actual pieces of furniture. A lot of the time, it’s fine – if you need to shift the scenery from London to Pepperinge Eye quickly, why not have people run around holding cardboard clouds and turning boxes into trains?

It can also be distracting – you can have too much of a good concept. And black-clad folk waving torches around as Miss Price casts a spell plays like over-fussy Fosse. It’s as if the production wanted to give the ensemble something to do before the big numbers arrive.

Under the sea, lit by Simon Wilkinson. Pic: Johan Persson

They really get to shine, though, under the sea, resplendent in iridescent outfits as they manipulate glowing fish, the biggest and best of whom is Norton, with Rob Madge’s characterisation a hoot.

Elsewhere, Emma Thornett and Mark Anderson are similarly splendid as Angela, a bird, and Sherman, a bear. Movement captain Matthew Elliott-Campbell is one of two actors manipulating the massive King Leonidas puppet, but he also voices him, scaring me, if not the young ‘uns in the audience, who were sitting spellbound.

Choreography, costumes and lighting (from Edinburgh-based lighting designer Simon Wilkinson) are all first class. The orchestra under musical director Laura Bangay underscore the mood and go to town on the show tunes.

nippy moments

There are couple of nippy moments, though. The refusal to mention the word ‘Nazi’, or even say who Britain was at war with – it’s simply ‘the looming menace’ – is a silly sop, likely from the US end of things, to the refusal of some to acknowledge history, but most children won’t notice.

Brian Hill’s book also adds a new twist, which undermines the message of faith and self-belief that’s central to the characters’ physical and emotional journey. It’s messy, unnecessary and the antithesis of what a Disney fantasy should be giving children. However, it is early days for stage Bedknobs, and there is still time to magic the entire sequence away before its London opening.

Nevertheless, no one is going to come away from Bedknobs and Broomsticks disappointed. It’s perfectly pitched theatrical magic for the whole family. And rabbits. And perhaps reanimated suits of armour.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street, EH8 9FT
Wednesday 16 – Sunday 20 February 2022
Eves Wed – Sat: 7.30pm; Mats Thur, Sat: 2.30pm; Sunday: 1pm & 5pm.
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Information and tickets: Book here.

ENDS

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Comments (1)

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  1. Liz says:

    We saw it this week and completely agree with the review – I loved it (possibly more than the children) but the magic bedknob was lacklustre – looked like cheap LED.
    The start with the bombs and the end with the guns was a little scary and I agree playing down the nazis and WW2 made it more scary and sinister and not less. Eglantine and the cast were fabulous.
    P.S. agree about the torches for spell casting too.