BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021
Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…) From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands. The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures…. Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course. Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal. An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny. Pilkington is excellent throughout.
Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props. The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny. Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on. Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.
Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them. Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations. On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act. An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down! Hill also gives the story a different ending. I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.
The underwater scene is there, tick box. Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island. And the bed is a marvel. There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).
A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday. Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry. O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him. Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance. Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.
It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes. It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!