Every year people gather round their TVs after stuffing their faces to watch the festive classics, and eternally popular among them is Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks offering a quirky mix of live action and animation starring theatre legend Angela Lansbury as yuletide fun for all the family.
It’s the story of the grieving Rawlins orphans – Charlie, Paul and Carrie – who are evacuated from bombed out London to a village where they are taken under the wing of local eccentric and trainee witch Eglantine Price. They join Eglantine and dodgy magician Emelius Browne on a series of magical adventures before taking on a dark threat to the village.
It is such a familiar fixture on our idiot boxes that it seems natural that the catchy Sherman Brothers tunes would eventually make its way to the stage, despite the obvious challenges of recreating a movie that won an Oscar for its trailblazing special effects.
The good news is that thanks to the genius of Jamie Harrison’s busy set, and often jaw dropping illusions, all the essential elements of the movie are present and correct, plus a few new songs from Neil Bartram. The sensational effects shouldn’t be surprising as Harrison worked on the Harry Potter stage show, but you are left wondering how he managed to make the bed fly round the stage among the many tricks he deploys.
But there is much more to this warm show because Harrison employs the big cast to bring on a complex, but perfectly choreographed, set of props and puppets that force the audience – young and old – to dust off their imagination lurching via that magic bed from Portobello Market to a Strictly style dance off in a surreal undersea kingdom.
West End veteran Dianne Pilkington was born to play Eglantine offering a gloriously layered performance as the three kids strip away the wannabe witch’s defences. She even manages to sing beautifully, even when perched on a flying broomstick in mid-air, and her The Age of Not Believing allaying teenager Charlie’s hidden fears is judged perfectly. It’s fair to say Dame Angela would approve of this witch.
Former child star Charles Brunton is suitably daffy and sings well as the fake wizard who finds himself through three children searching for love. Conor O’Hara makes a very impressive professional debut in this complex production subtly supporting his young co-stars, and really getting to grips with a young lad trying to make sense of the chaos around him
This is a big show in a historic venue, so it would be easy for the younger actors to be overwhelmed, but both Poppy Houghton and Dexter Barry belie their ages with supremely confident performances. Houghton is splendidly feisty as Carrie and Barry confidently carries off the showstopping The Beautiful Briny, which is a joy all round.
Special mention to the ensemble who are constantly shifting props around, and changing costumes, but they all take their moment on a busy Portobello that is so full of life and fine voices. The undersea world of Nopeepo is imaginatively realised as the ensemble skilfully manipulate a series of fishy puppets, but the climatic fight scene does fall a little flat
The live band under Laura Bangay really do justice to the oft forgotten genius of The Sherman Brother’s surreal and often off kilter score, which as Jim Dale wisely could only have written by Brits.
For people new to this world of magical bedknobs there is much to savour, and devotees of the movie should enjoy the delicious twist that really adds something fresh. This is probably not for really young kids as some were nodding off late into the second half, but it is a show that is most definitely for all the family.
It is easy to get adaptations of beloved movies badly wrong, but thanks to some genuinely spectacular special effects, and an equally bold challenge for the audience to use their brains, this has West End written all over it.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until Sunday 2nd January. To book 0113 2430808 or visit https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/bedknobs-and-broomsticks/
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 15th December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★