Take a look around The Lowry on this sold-out press night and the evergreen popularity of Disney’s 1971 film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is clear to see. There are multiple generations in the audience, including many children experiencing their first live theatre production.
With its catchy songs, written by the Sherman Brothers, naturally the film would have to be adapted for the stage sooner or later. But there’s a big problem… How do you transfer its magical flying bed, broomsticks, animation, and levitation to the theatre?
The answer to this is solved by hiring Jamie Harrison, the creator of the magical illusions for both parts of the Olivier Award winning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, to design the magic for Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Going into this show, I honestly thought that it would heavily rely on video technology, particularly the parts in Nopeepo, at the bottom of The Beautiful Briny Sea. Instead, the story is brought to life by wonderful puppetry, clever sets, and genuine theatrical magic.
Like watching a stage magician, I spent most of the show trying to figure out how things fly, how people are turned into animals, and how on earth Substitutiary Locomotion works. You look for wires, mirrors, or anything to explain the magic being performed in front of your eyes. Admitting defeat, I finally accepted that, for the next few hours, the magic on stage is real.
Following the adventures of three orphaned children evacuated from London during the Second World War, the star of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is Eglantine Price, an apprentice witch who takes the children in, whilst waging a magical war on the invading German soldiers. In order to do so, she must retrieve a spell from her professor, Emelius Browne, magician extraordinaire.
Cutting an eloquently British, prim and proper figure, Dianne Pilkington is perfectly cast as Miss Price, capturing both her character’s serious and more adventurous, fun side. Her relationship with the delightfully eccentric Charles Brunton is genuinely endearing and quite touching at times.
I last saw Brunton singing ‘Springtime for Hitler’ in The Producers at The Royal Exchange, so it was nice to see him in something slightly more family friendly. However, it is undeniable that he is having just as much, if not more fun, as Mr Browne in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. He brilliantly incorporates many of David Tomlinson’s facial expressions and mannerisms into his performance, and injects a huge amount of joy into the show.
The youngest children in the Rawlings family are played by a rotating cast of actors. On the evening I attended, Evie Lightman played Carrie, who felt under-utilised because she never has a shining moment, unlike her two brothers. Aidan Oti played the youngest family member, Paul, who gets possession of the magical bedknob.
The eldest brother, Charlie, is permanently played on tour by Conor O’Hara, who honestly feels too old for the role. It is difficult to believe that Charlie is only thirteen, when he is the same height the Dianne Pilkington’s Miss Price, who wears heels. O’Hara’s performance oddly seems exactly like he is doing an impression of a teenager, whereas I believe that casting an actual teenager in this role would deliver a more authentic performance.
Where Bedknobs and Broomsticks struggles is in the sheer volume of large, clunky furniture being wheeled on and off-stage by the ensemble cast. Technically impressive, an act of destruction at the beginning of the show depicts an idyllic London home getting bombed in an air-raid. The set gets broken apart, leaving the arched ruins framing the stage.
As such, the idea of war looms heavily over the entire production. I wish that they were removed during the fantasy scenes in Nopeepo though, as this could’ve signified the power of a child’s imagination, granting them temporary escapism from the war. However, the ruins stay on stage throughout the entire play, often getting in the way of the show’s bigger musical numbers.
The highlight of act one is the euphoric, triumphant song, ‘Portobello Road’. It’s a fantastic song performed by the entire ensemble as they depict a bustling urban street-market. The stage is buzzing with excitement as several pedlars advertise their wares. But sometimes, the house’s ruins appeared to get in the way of the vendors wheeling their stalls on and off stage. It looks incredibly cramped.
Despite mourning the loss of my favourite scene from the film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is still a wonderful display of stage magic and illusion. The technicality of the production is seriously impressive, and the puppetry is excellent (especially Rob Madge‘s singing fish).
I have absolutely no idea how they did half of the magic, but I honestly don’t want to know. Guessing is half the fun!