Original Music & Lyrics by The Sherman Brothers
New Songs & Additional Music & Lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by Brian Hill
Directed by Candice Edmunds
Desperation and agony often find solace in the realms of music, of colour and the more fantastical elements. For those fleeing war-torn London for the country, leaving behind family and homes, to escape to an imaginative world of talking animals, invoked instruments and jigging clothes – Robert Stevenson’s 1971 film Bedknobs & Broomsticks has long been a warm-hearted piece, looked back with nostalgia, and utterly screaming for a stage adaptation.
Or better yet, a musical stint that not only takes the mystical flying bed all across the UK but structures Bedknobs & Broomsticks in a way that pays tribute to the original but stands wholly as a production in its own right – taking a step in the right direction, to near theatrical perfection.
For aficionados, following in the footsteps of The Sherman Brothers, the Brits’ responsible for some of musical cinema’s most iconic melodies found within Mary Poppins & The Jungle Book is a neigh-terrifying prospect, one which Neil Bartram rises to, striking the familiar tones synonymous with the Disney wartime masterpiece, as capitalising on the richness of the original score. Alterations, or rather re-invention of established pieces exist within the musical, and similarly, the entire production does more than generate an adaptation, it revolutionises the stage experience of Bedknobs & Broomsticks.
Gone is the over-bloated Portobello Road, mingling in the shining pearls and buttons of the East end brigade for Bartram’s abridged and more bombastically energised variation. And where the two-dimensional animation of the past once stood – in its place a visual and tangible example of the magic of theatre. From Matthew Elliot-Campbell’s King Leonidas, Emma Thornett’s Angela the bird to Rob Madge’s charming Norton the fish, Kenneth MacLeod’s puppetry design will find audiences clambering to the merch stall in the hopes of securing their own Sherman the bear (Spoilers… you’ll be disappointed).
There’s no need for spells of Substitutiary Locomotion to make this audience move, as they hang on the words and voice of Dianne Pilkington, who may well play the role of apprentice witch to the letter but brings nothing but star-power and a fitting tribute to the part Angela Lansbury honed those years ago. From taming a beast to fending off the Nazis – Pilkington is a stage legend in fruition.
Eglantine Price, a woman of substance and reserved intelligence, Pilkington’s initial cold brush-offs are met with humour, wit to both writing and performance, but gradually strips into a touching performance of the woman who lost her father, the witch who is determined to right the wrongs of the world and a mother to outshine the encroaching darkness.
But this is a world where darkness reigns supreme, both in Hill’s narrative and Jamie Harrison and Simon Wilkinson’s illusionary and lighting design. Bedknobs & Broomsticks lays itself in shadow, both of war and grief, but in set-up. It plays directly into master magicians’ hands for the illusions, some the finest work of stage magic many will witness – a broom with more personality than some leading performers on the Westend, to the only time you’ll wish to be turned into a rabbit.
Wilkinson’s lighting plays a significant role, flooding the theatre in awe and colour where required, so deprived throughout the bomb scare bleakness, this re-introduction of palette and eruptions of splendour is a marvel and illuminates both Gabriella Slade’s costume design and the overall children pop-up book aesthetic of the design and structure.
Though an oddity presents itself as we delve further into the production’s ‘twist’ compared to the film version of events, and despite the darker tones in psychological trauma and war-ravaged Britain, there are removals and omissions of direct connection with the invading forces. There’s an understanding of Hill & director Candice Edmunds decisions, but to push to envelope so close to the bone, only to quickly retreat back is the production’s eye-brow raising blip.
A vagabond of varying virtue, Charles Brunton has the most arduous task with a reinvention of the character, the remainder of the cast staying somewhat within the foundations of their origins. From David Tomlinson’s precise casting as the toff without a halfpenny, Brunton’s Emelius Browne has closer ties to that of Ron Moody’s Fagin – quick, nervous, and landing on his feet at every turn. But thankfully, Edmunds recognises there are one too many gentlemen in suits pinching pockets in London these days. Those who can detach, and rightfully should so, Brunton’s take is charismatic as it is chaotic and poses a marvellous sense of chemistry with the superb child performances of Izabella Bucknell and Aidan Oti.
For any at the age of not believing, who doubted the intensity and warming nature live theatre can perform – the bewitching charm of Bedknobs & Broomsticks is enrapturing, a rare gem of brilliance which takes the building ingredients and tosses them into a cauldron, like only Miss Price could do, the resulting concoction echoing of the past, but with a distinctly enriched and contemporary flair. Three taps, a quarter turn, and say the place your heart desires; and if you’ve half the sense, it’ll be right down to the Festival Theatre.
Bedknobs & Broomsticks runs at the Festival Theatre until February 20th. Tickets for which can be obtained here.