The magical world of Disney has a strong track-record on the world’s stages, having turned many of their animated classics into fully realised theatrical productions. Making its Broadway debut with ‘Beauty & The Beast’, breaking all Box-Office and Awards records with ‘The Lion King’, through to ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Aladdin’ and most recently ‘Frozen’, they have shown that their timeless stories and songs translate beautifully to the stage, bringing beloved characters to life and enthralling audiences with stunning sets, innovative puppetry and lavish costumes.
The latest title to be brought to our theatres is ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’. Originally released in 1971, the classic film starred Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson, and featured memorable songs by the Sherman Brothers. Set in wartime London, it tells the story of a trainee witch (Miss Price) who takes in three orphaned evacuees after their parents are killed in the bombings. The children soon discover Miss Price’s witchy secret and embark on an adventure that sees them talking to animals on a desert island and dancing at the bottom of the “Beautiful Briny Sea”, travelling on a double bed via the help of a magical bedknob.
Edmunds and Harrison’s adaptation is a delight to watch, a faithful and classical interpretation of the original story, and yet brilliantly innovative in its approach. They have managed to marry the magical aspects of the story with a bleak realism seamlessly, and the show feels like it casts a spell as it plays out. For a touring show, the stage effects are daringly brave, and pay off fantastically well, seeing Miss Price take to her broomstick, suits of armour coming to life, and the famous bed taking to the air and flying overhead. The work Harrison has done here with his set and illusion design is nothing short of magical. Even on repeated viewings, the secrets of how these visuals are achieved will stay hidden, and their effect is brilliant. The distressed crumbling outer set reminds us of how these children’s lives have been torn apart, and an ominous darkness looms large over most scenes, which really works. This is a far darker show than something like ‘Mary Poppins’ which is its most obvious comparative show. Although never scary, and perfectly suitable for little ones, ‘Bedknobs’ trades ‘Poppins’ sugary brightness with something less saccharine, and fully delivers in its approach.
Most of the original plot remains, with the largest change being the scene that takes place on the island (now renamed ‘Nopeepo’ rather than ‘Naboombu’ as fans of the film will know). The group still meet the lion king (not that Lion King), but the legendary football match has been sadly dropped (to be fair, it didn’t affect the plot anyway, it was just a genius of animation). We still get various animals though, the puppetry of which is done creatively and really brings the creatures to life. Occasionally the stage does feel a little overly busy with so many people in a relatively small space and could perhaps be reworked to allow a little more movement. The ending has also proven divisive, with some feeling it robs the show of the magic that has been built up to that point, while the deliberate ambiguity will reward others who search for the hidden meaning behind it and interpret it in their own way.
Retaining most of the songs from the film, the Sherman’s melodies still sound great, in particular “The Age of Not Believing”, “A Step in the Right Direction” and “Substitutiary Locomotion” which are performed brilliantly by the cast. The new additions by Neil Bartram also sound great, and Bartram has done a fantastic job in creating songs which fit seamlessly with the Sherman’s original style.
At the reviewed performance, three of the lead characters were played by understudies, and it came as a huge reminder of how talented understudies truly are. As the theatre industry continues to battle through Covid, the value and recognition of understudies has come more to the foreground as shows frantically rally round trying to gather enough resource for the show to go on, and this recognition needs to continue. Learning multiple roles in a show and being able to flip between them so regularly is a true skill and doesn’t go unnoticed by theatre lovers. As Miss Price, Emma Thornett (understudying Diane Pilkington) gave a true ‘leading lady’ performance, sounding great and delivering her lines with a cool precision and a gleaming twinkle in her eye. She also coped brilliantly with a slight broomstick difficulty, never losing her cool and regaining control of the pesky prop while still delivering a song and hanging from a harness; it was pure professionalism. Sam Lupton (understudying Charles Brunton as Emelius Browne) also shone brightly, capturing Browne’s humour and awkwardness, and echoing Tomlinson’s original brilliance. Robin Simoes Da Silva (understudying Conor O’Hara) also did really well as cockney teenager Charlie, portraying a wonderful chemistry with his two younger siblings.
So much thought, care and attention to detail has gone into ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’ and it really shows. It deserves a sit-down residency in London and to reach a massive audience, hopefully it will be given this at some point. If this happens, some of the scene-changing would benefit from some automation, as a few of the quieter moments are broken by the sound of scenery being positioned or wheeled off, and occasional transitions feel clunky. But this is a minor criticism when judged against the sheer magic that is created on that stage. A staple of many childhoods, ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’ is a wonderful production that has translated wonderfully to the stage. Go and see it before you reach “The Age Of Not Believing”, and immerse yourself in some Disney magic.
Reviewer: Robert Bartley
Reviewed: 10th February 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★