Musical theatre in Britain is currently heavily influenced by Disney, with three shows (The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Frozen) playing in the West End at present, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ arriving in Manchester next month as part of a national tour. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing, it shows no sign of dissipating with the next one off the production line, an adaptation of the much beloved 1971 film musical ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’. It is fair to say that with a few minor tweaks, the House of Mouse could have another big hit on its hands.
The original stories by Mary Norton, author of The Borrowers, were written in the immediate period after the Second World War and the story of the Rawlins children, Charlie (Conor O’Hara), Carrie (Isabella Bucknall) and Paul (Aidan Oti) evacuation to escape the London blitz, would have resonated with her readership in post war Britain. By 1971, Disney had enlisted the genius of the Sherman Brothers, added musicality to the original storyline and allied it with trademark animated scenes to produce an underappreciated, late Disney classic.
Fast forward to 2022, this production has additional songs from Neil Bartram and a book by Brian Hill, blending elements of Harry Potter into the brew, to produce something darker and more satisfying for the adult audience members, whilst still delighting the children. The story of the Rawlins dumping in the absent minded care of Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington); the discovery that she is an apprentice witch and their subsequent adventures on a flying bed, culminating in their foiling a full scale Nazi invasion, are great fun, entertaining the capacity Lowry audience richly. However, what added real texture from Hill, was the framing of the entire story around the loss of the parents (a theme in children’s literature), culminating in an ending that is much more satisfying than the source material.
Pilkington gives the character of Eglantine a prim, bluestocking charm with a glint in her eye, allowing her to be believable both when singing ‘The Age of Not Believing’ and dancing like a dervish during ‘Emilius & Eglantine’. Emilius Browne has the down at heel charm of a faded trickster and his redemption story (It’s Now) is delicately realised by Charles Brunton. The children are both cutely professional with Oti getting the lion’s share of the laugh lines as Paul. O’Hara was convincing in the role of an anguished thirteen-year-old orphan, struggling with loss, but his cockney accent grated, and I was uncomfortably reminded of Dick Van Dyke in its more extreme moments.
The ensemble was underutilised but when given the opportunity to shine, did so, shimmering in costumes redolent of ‘Wicked’. ‘Portobello Road’ brought the first act to a rousing close and was followed by ‘The Beautiful Briny’ immediately after the interval. Both these Sherman Brothers original songs sparkled and when allied to Neil Bettles choreography, it really took on the mantle of a large scale musical. The show undoubtedly misses a big song at the conclusion, with no significant music in the last twenty minutes the structure was badly skewed. Bartram and Hill need to address this imbalance, which at present leaves the story’s conclusion too dark for a family show.
I would have liked the set to have more fully utilised the enormous expanse of the Quays Theatre apron, at times the action felt cramped and too many bodies were onstage. This was particularly the case during the scenes involving animal puppets, which though beautifully rendered, felt cluttered. Similarly, the use of bombed out buildings onstage throughout was evocative but prevented the big ensemble numbers reaching their full potential and made scene changes cumbersome. As this production has toured different theatres (with differing stage footprints) for the last nine months, it can be forgiven, but if it transfers to a home in the West End, I would hope to see a more expansive version produced.
Undoubtedly the show stopping moments involved the illusion design of Jamie Harrison. Interval discussion in the bar revolved around just one question ‘How did they make the bed fly?’, with younger audience members convinced that real magic was involved! No spoilers here, just enjoy a wonderful spectacle that only live theatre can provide.
The similarities to Mary Poppins are obvious, both in the musicality (both Sherman Brothers creations) and in the redemption story of the central male character by a magical, supernatural female figure. However, ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ deserves to be judged on its own merits and will succeed in thrilling audiences around the UK and maybe even the West End this Summer.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks continues at The Lowry until the 19th March, https://thelowry.com/whats-on/bedknobs-and-broomsticks/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 16th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★