Bedknobs and Broomsticks review – Disney's classic is adapted for the stage in new musical tour
The piece is visiting locations across the UK and Ireland
Can you believe it's been 50 years since Eglantine Price and co landed on our screens (via a magical flying bed)? The cult Disney classic has often been compared to Mary Poppins – both based on books about magical caretakers by female authors, developed under Disney himself and with similar animated sequences. Both also feature music by the hit songsters the Sherman Brothers. It's a shame that the film has often lived in the shadow of Poppins, as despite it being a bit more hodgepodge than hocus pocus (the tonal shifts are severe – one moment playing football with a lion and the next defeating Nazis) it is full of undeniable charm and wit. It is pleasing to report that Disney's stage adaptation is just as good if not better than its screen counterpart, with a tighter narrative arc that still retains the eccentricities and key moments we all know and love.
For those who need a refresher, it's World War II and siblings Charlie, Carrie and Paul are evacuated to the countryside after their parents are killed in a bomb attack on London. They are staying with Miss Eglantine Price, who they find out is an apprentice witch aiming to use her magic to help the war effort. With an enchanted bedknob, the four fly on a bed in search of Professor Emelius Browne, Miss Price's ex-tutor, to find the spell needed to bring inanimate objects to life. The quintet goes on a series of adventures including to Portobello Road and to the Island of Napeepo (renamed for the stage production, though unclear why, perhaps for toilet humour?), learning to believe in magic – and maybe something more – along the way.
Brian Hill's adaptation is faithful to the original screenplay, while also fleshing out some undeveloped parts. Neil Bartram's tunes sit nicely with the Sherman Brothers' pre-existing musical material and, though nothing can beat the crowd-pleasing "Portobello Road" (featuring excellent choreography by Neil Bettles) or "The Beautiful Briny", "Nobody's Problems" and "The Age of Not Believing". Sadly but understandably, the beloved animated football scene isn't present, replaced with a dance competition in the Briny Ballroom. It's much more theatrical, complete with blue sequinned costumes (Gabriella Slade) and a chorus of fish puppets, and allows the romance between Eglantine and Emelius to blossom.
Of course, what most audiences are here to see is the magic, and illusions designer Jamie Harrison certainly does not disappoint. Though some of the handheld magic could do with some polishing, the star of the show is of course the flying bed. Earning a round of applause when it takes off the first time, its frame glowing amber, it is a huge delight to watch and truly enchanting.
Puppets are used excellently throughout the show, often to present the animals the troupe encounter. They're wonderful and beautifully designed, and it's clear puppet designer Kenneth MacLeod and directors Harrison and Candice Edmunds have spent time with the actors ensuring each puppet really comes to life. Humans turning into rabbits is equally pleasing and creative. This is good old-fashioned stage magic at its best.
The ending to the piece has been altered, framing the show in a different way. No huge spoilers here as it's something that may divide audiences, but it's certainly an interesting way of looking at how the children have been impacted by the war. This, along with the physical theatre esque-prologue showing the children being evacuated from London, is a left-field choice for a commercial show but it certainly works, giving the piece more depth and extending the central theme of believing to the magic of the theatre, too. However, having many set pieces being brought on and off by the hardworking ensemble can make the stage look cluttered at points and it's hard to know where to look.
Onto the cast! Dianne Pilkington is exemplary as Miss Price. She balances her no-nonsense demeanour with warmth, and leads the show with aplomb. Her performance of "A Step in the Right Direction" whilst learning to fly on a broomstick in the first act is hilarious, and is the moment when we as an audience begin to really click with the show. Charles Brunton's Emelius Browne is gangly and awkward, playing up the silliness of the role. Conor O'Hara as oldest child Charlie takes on a lot of the legwork where the children are concerned. It's slightly awkward having an adult playing a 13 year-old opposite child actors as his siblings, and at times looks as if he is shepherding them around the stage. That said, his "Negotiality" number is cheeky and his emotional state throughout the show is what sells us the alternate ending, so perhaps this role is better in the hands of a grown-up performer.
With plenty of magic and wonder, spellbinding illusions and a shining cast, this new take on a classic is certainly bobbing along rather nicely.