Is the young man you have your heart set on already betrothed, not only to someone else, but to your old college enemy? Well the solution is simple: cast a spell!
This is exactly what Gillian Holroyd, the young witch at the heart of John Van Druton’s delightfully quirky romantic comedy, decides to do. But, as every self-respecting witch knows only too well, magic cannot really conjure true love, and deep water beckons.
The original 1950 production of Bell, Book and Candle was a Broadway hit starring Rex Harrison and was later made into a movie seeing James Stewart take his last romantic lead. The play is also said to have inspired the more recent, much-loved television series, Bewitched.
The action takes place in the festive front room of Gillian’s Greenwich Village (New York, not London!) apartment on and around Christmas Eve, 1950. The scene is one of tranquil and cosy domesticity as the audience take their seats to strains of "Silver Bells", with cuddly ginger cat and Christmas tree in place.
However, it is almost immediately apparent with the entrance of Zoe Teverson’s glamorous and gentile Gillian that this is the home of no ordinary young woman. As we are introduced to more of her family, we find that hints of Harry Potter were alive and well long before JK Rowling put pen to paper. Finger-clicking lights, summoning charms, a feline familiar and hexes on phone lines are just some of the magical delights on offer in this classic piece.
John C Scheffler’s set design is just right. From the giant luminous tarot cards along the wall to the moon-shaped ashtray, this really is a witch’s lair-cum-bachelorette pad where the spiralling seduction of unsuspecting, hapless tenant Shepherd Henderson ensues.
A robust performance from Stephen Cavanagh ensures the perfect antithesis between the rational, somewhat staid Shep and the wayward characters that close in on him. Teverson’s Gillian is equally convincing, her roguish delight turning slowly to guilty angst as the magnitude of her actions dawns on her. Aunt Queenie is truly entertaining. Wild-eyed, clumsily eccentric and sporting a series of hilarious facial expressions, it is almost impossible to believe that Carole Street was required to stand in at short notice owing to illness.
The play’s sub-plot concerning Gillian’s impish brother Nicky, aging author Sidney (played by John Sears) and the book they work on together is a little wishy-washy, but allows perfectly cast Duncan Macinnes to take his character’s cheeky powers of manipulation to new levels. Springy-haired and elfin, he oozes a compelling and playful energy throughout. Not to forget the ingenious and pivotal cat Pyewacket who, playing himself, makes the role completely his. (Where did they find him?!)
Bell, Book and Candle does not challenge in any way. Rather, its ever-current magical theme will serve brilliantly to provide wholesome and enjoyable family entertainment with a twist in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
- Helen Macdonald