Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – until 20 February 2022
Reviewed by James Knight.
It’s a rare thing for a family-oriented production to open with the child protagonists’ parents dying during the Blitz. Rarer still to continue with an entirely non-verbal prologue detailing those children in the traumatic aftermath. Welcome to ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’, folks. Mary Poppins this ain’t.
The 1971 Walt Disney film, with music by the Sherman Brothers (also famous for Mary Poppins), clearly hoped to capitalise on the success of the Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke spectacular. English period setting? Check. A woman with magical powers, looking after adorable children with absent parents? Check? Animated characters? David Tomlinson? All there. But while still regarded as a classic, it was never quite as popular as Poppins.
The new stage show however, aims to correct that. Despite the grim opening, and the looming threat of invasion throughout, this is still a light-hearted musical about magic, hope, and the power of just believing.
Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington) has been learning witchcraft via a correspondence course with ‘The Great Professor Emelius Browne’ (Charles Brunton), and now she has to take charge of three recently orphaned evacuees: Charlie, Carrie and Paul Rawlins (Conor O’Hara, Izabella Bucknell* and Aidan Oti*). After discovering her secret, Miss Price reveals to the children that she needs one last spell to defend the country against an imminent invasion. That last spell however, is going to prove very difficult to get hold of, as her witchcraft course has been cancelled…
So begins a magical journey that whisks the audience to London to find Emelius Browne and then to the Island of Nopeepo, all via a flying bed.
The magic used is superb and used to great effect. Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, of theatre company Vox Motus, know precisely when to let the technical wizardry do the work, and when to let older, more traditional methods, like puppetry, take the lead (Harrison also designed the set, of which the looming ruins of the Rawlins’ former house maintain a constant reminder of the trauma they have faced, and the threat that is to come). During ‘A Step in the Right Direction’, Eglantine learns to fly a broom for the first time and the results are hilarious and bewitching all at once. Little touches, such as the flying bed passing through an archway, or a person appearing mid-air when they have turn back from a rabbit, heighten the magic effortlessly.
Most of the Sherman Brother’s songs remain from the film, but new ones written by Neil Bartram to flesh out characters or moments. Some of these are more successful than others, and two songs near the climax (It’s Now, Onward) feel underpowered, and don’t manage to capture the emotion that is required at such an important point. And after the wonderful ‘Portobello Road’ I was expecting great things from ‘The Beautiful Briny’ and a dance competition between the fish and Miss Price and Emelius, but the choreography seemed simple and clumsy in comparison. Also, parents be warned: it’s a long show for little ones, despite the magic onstage.
That being said, the theatrical tricks that are used work wonders, whether it’s the incredible puppetry for the various animals that appear or the simple movement of set by the Ensemble to show our heroes’ journey when they’re not travelling by bed. Theatre has always been about magic in some form, and the cast and crew of Bedknobs and Broomsticks honour that tradition impeccably.
*on night reviewed