BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _14th NOV 2021.

_12 November 2021.
images © Johan Persson 2021.

There’s an argument to be made – amongst the more cynical, perhaps – that 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks never quite stepped out from beneath the flying nanny-shaped shadow it was birthed under. All the ingredients were seemingly present for a repeat of the Poppins magic – director Robert Stevenson was back at the helm, songwriter extraordinaries the Sherman Brothers were once again penning the music, as were screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, and the core team who had churned Oscars, audience adoration and box office gold from the magical happenings at Cherry Tree Lane were back, once again adapting a beloved children’s book into a live action musical featuring fantastical animated sequences, all headed up by a genuine British acting grande dame and loveable Disney stalwart David Tomlinson.

So, why did Bedknobs not slam itself into the cultural and critical zeitgeist in the same way Poppins had just a few years prior? Perhaps, in fact, it was too similar; this was the reason Disney themselves gave for scrapping the film project several times over the course of the 1960’s (curiously, Bedknobs had actually even entered development before Poppins, and was immediately shelved as soon as the latter’s rights became available).

Fast-forward a handful of decades, though, and we reach a stage where there’s now enough coppers in the vaults, enough proven potential in spilling Disney out onto the stage, and enough fuel in the collective nostalgia engine to pique interest in revisiting the House of Mouse’s adventures with the magical Ms. Eglantine Price and friends.

Something of a surprise upon announcement – albeit a welcome one (this particular reviewer having studied both the book and film at school) – Bedknobs and Broomsticks is back, and, in providing it with such a lavish, fulsome adaptation, Disney and Michael Harrison present a production that actually draws further attention to the film’s shortcomings and potential misfires by dint of getting it even better and that bit more complete this time round.

Given the original film’s run time of 2 hours and 19 minutes, you could almost have forgiven the creatives behind this new incarnation of Bedknobs to have rustled up a fairly direct, one-to-one transplant on stage. They had already inherited some fun musical numbers and memorable sequences – see: ‘Portobello Road’, ‘The Beautiful Briny’ – but there’s a definite sense that director Candice Edmunds, writer Brian Hill and music maestro Neil Bartram adopted a philosophy of ‘what we’ve got here is inherently really good… let’s make it even better.’

“There’s a definite sense of ‘what we’ve got here is inherently really good… let’s make it even better.’”

Following the story of three siblings orphaned by the horrors of World War II, who get taken in during a Countryside relocation programme by eccentric loner-turned-apprentice witch Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington), one of the most immediate areas where Bedknobs on stage elaborates upon its source material is in its handling of character. From the inferences of post-traumatic stress and grief weighing heavily on eldest sibling Charlie (Conor O’Hara), to a much fuller and more poignant exploration of exactly why Miss Price is so determined to fend off an impending wartime invasion – both of which lend some real gravitas and emotion to numbers such as ‘The Age of Not Believing’ in particular – this is a story which feels somehow fuller and more purposeful.

The original Bedknobs and Broomsticks film was shelved numerous times during development for being ‘too similar’ to the hugely-successful Mary Poppins, despite having gone into development before Disney even acquired the rights to the latter. It eventually released some seven years after Poppins, to a far more mixed reception.

A meatier, more engaging book with a more fleshed out central cast; it’s a mission statement apparent pretty much from the off when there’s very little whimsy in Bedknobs somber opening – showing the grim reality, movement and isolation of being a displaced child during WWII. It’s a slightly disorienting but effective open, one that is followed up by revived tentpole ‘Nobody’s Problems’ (excised from the film, beautifully restored here), a number that will come to percolate throughout the entire show and represent not just the fears and wounds of the young Rawlins children, but the grown-up leads, too.

If this all sounds a little maudlin, then rest assured; Bedknobs and Broomsticks doesn’t skimp on the flights of fantasy or adventure, either. Much of the credit for this not only goes to the tremendous craftsmanship, set design, puppetry and managing of all of this by a talented, spirited ensemble, but also thanks to Neil Bartram’s handling of the show’s music. No mean feat considering the originally released film carried only seven numbers (upped to ten for a 1996 reconstructed release).

Be it reinterpreting Sherman Brothers’ favourites – again often into something a little more character-driven or in keeping with the time (for example, some of ‘Portobello Road’s’ more questionable ethnic moments get understandably omitted here) – or offering up all-new numbers, Bertram does exceptional work. The spritely, imaginative jaunts of ‘Miss Price, I Believe’ and ‘Negotiability’, the breakneck flurry of ‘Emelius the Great’ through to the more emotive beats of ‘It’s Now’ and the aforementioned ‘Nobody’s Problems’ reprise, pretty much everything new here is terrific, and sits seamlessly alongside the more familiar original numbers.

The original Bedknobs and Broomsticks film was shelved numerous times during development for being ‘too similar’ to the hugely-successful Mary Poppins, despite having gone into development before Disney even acquired the rights to the latter. It eventually released some seven years after Poppins, to a far more mixed reception.

They are savvy as pieces of adaptation work, too – see Act II crowd-pleaser ‘Emelius and Eglantine’ serving multiple functions of moving the plot forward, tackling the issue of how to meet the film’s animated football match sequence in similarly visually appealing fashion on-stage, whilst also pulling on character threads between its two lead characters that began back in ‘Eglantine’ and will continue through to the show’s denouement.

Of course, for all the excellent work clearly gone in to deepening and adapting Bedknobs for the stage, it would all be for pretty much naught were it plonked in the wrong hands of those bringing it to life.

There’s craftsmanship to spare on show here. The shadow of war looms large over the story and characters of Bedknobs, with designer Jamie Harrison quite literally framing most of the action on stage with the devastated shells of homes ravaged by the Blitz. Rarely are these visceral framing devices absent. But so too does Harrison whip up plenty of magic and colour, from some wonderful illusory work early on with Miss Price’s magical broomstick floating, flying and flipping around the stage with seemingly a life all of its own, through to some truly stellar puppetry that makes the show’s visit to the mythical Island of Nopeepo (renamed from the film’s ‘Naboombu’ for reasons that can only be guessed at) easily as enchanting as its filmic counterpart.

“Some truly stellar puppetry that makes the show’s visit to the mythical Island of Nopeepo easily as enchanting as its filmic counterpart.”

There are a handful of moments – particularly come the challenging-to-adapt finale – where some of the mime and illusion work isn’t quite as effective or fluent, and occasionally the sheer number of ensemble helping with some of the early scene transitions, although deliberate, can become momentarily distracting, but overall these are minor gripes in what is mostly a visual delight of a show. And it would, of course, be remiss to not mention the titular mode of transportation, which takes triumphant flight throughout and is – quite literally – dazzling.

Key to forging this new interpretation of Bedknobs as its own beast, in addition to a welcome rewrite of some of the key plot points which are much more impacting and thematically satisfying here, is in how its cast do not attempt to blindly mimic the Lansburys and Tomlinsons of yesteryear.

West End stalwart Dianne Pilkington is a charismatic and delightful anchor to pin the show upon, her Eglantine plenty deadpan, dry and even occasionally shrill at the outset, before slowly peeling back the layers and revealing the humanity and charm beneath, with Pilkington’s command of the stage in full force, and she in expectedly fine voice. There is the occasional reverb of Charles Brunton’s terrific work as Matilda’s Trunchbull threatening to slip into the more heightened moments of his wonderfully zany and exuberant turn as Professor Emelius Browne, but that’s no slight. It’s a funny, engaging and likeable leading turn, and, much like Pilkington, deserves extra plaudits for being so distinctive and removed from Tomlinson’s take on the character.

“West End stalwart Dianne Pilkington is a charismatic and delightful anchor to pin the show upon.”

Great things surely await recent graduate Conor O’Hara, who, in his professional debut, offers up great vocals and a keen eye for idiosyncratic character work as cheeky, irrepressible older brother Charlie. And the supporting cast and ensemble are positively littered with great performers delivering up some delicious Disney magic, most of whom on multi-role duty; see Matthew Elliot-Campbell as a cantankerously regal Lion, Mark Anderson and Emma Thornett as his nervy animal subjects (with all three helping to puppeteer their gorgeous animal counterparts) and social media favourite Rob Madge springing Act II to life with his hilarious, supremely northern Norton the ballroom host… who is, of course, a fish.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks arrives to the stage (for the first time, no less) at a time where its formerly flashier step sibling recently returned to the West End to rave reviews and accolades aplenty. It would be glib and depressing to simply pit the two shows against one another – doubly so given the history of their respective film franchises. In truth, though, rather than having to flounder about in the shadow of Mary Poppins, in crafting such a wholesome, considered and beautifully crafted adaptation of what was already a charming delight of a tale, Disney and the Bedknobs crew have offered up a joyful musical experience that can proudly stand entirely on its own merits and as its own entity.

It’s 2021 – there’s room aplenty for both magical flying nannies and equally magical flying witches and bed frames.

And what of those Bedknobs and Broomsticks enthusiasts who already held the original in high esteem, and have been waiting decades to see it get the full House of Mouse musical theatre treatment?

Well, your age of not believing is finally over.

A joyous flight of fantasy, with their new take on the tales of Miss Price, Disney and the Bedknobs team present a new poster girl for how to adapt – and improve upon – for the stage. There has been magic sewn here.

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