Oft-overlooked Disney classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks dazzles and delights in its World Premiere UK Tour
Starring Dianne Pilkington, Charles Brunton and Conor O’Hara
A whole half century since its cinematic release, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, largely eclipsed by the shadow of the far more successful Mary Poppins, has been brought to the stage by Disney Theatrical for a World Premiere UK Tour. The fact that this is its debut compared to Frozen’s Broadway introduction perhaps indicates some reservations from the big wigs of Disney’s Theatre division, though is perhaps apt considering the film’s turbulent journey to the screen.
Originally shelved by Disney when the rights for Mary Poppins became available, the two films have an awful lot in common. On the basest level, they both involve children and a slightly austere heroine with an affinity for magic, played by gay icons. Additionally, they were both directed by Robert Stephenson, feature scores by the Sherman Brothers and combine live action with animated sequences. In fact, The Beautiful Briny was originally penned for Mary Poppins.
Despite its relatively low-key opening, compared to the pomp and circumstance that Disney has been known to trot out, there’s almost something more special and more intimate about experiencing a developing Disney production like this. There’s something which doesn’t seem like fakery, which doesn’t feel generic, which doesn’t feel like just another cog in a large corporate machine. It feels quirky, and whimsical and, well, utterly magical. To see something from a monstrously large company that clearly has something of a status of an underdog, without the big money and fancy technology, with projections and massive set pieces, and seems to exist purely on the backs of ensemble members and clouds that are cellotaped onto the end of long sticks just seems deliciously industrious and homemade, and wholly fits into the whimsical aesthetic and language that has evolved straight from the original movie.
For the uninitiated, Bedknobs and Broomsticks follows the Rawlin children, Charlie (Conor O’Hara), Carrie (played in this performance by Sapphire Hagon) and Paul (played in this performance by Aidan Oti), as they are evacuated to Dorset during the Blitz, after their house explodes and their parents die. Relatable stuff. There, they are entrusted to Miss Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington, wisely not attempting an Angela Lansbury impression), a rather prickly woman who does not see the usefulness in children, which – frankly – is very relatable. Miss Price represents great swathes of adult millenials on that front. Children are germ factories, and it’s just that simple.
Aside from her forward-thinking, Miss Price is also an apprentice witch, hence her desire for privacy. However, when she learns that her school of witchcraft has been unceremoniously shut down due to the War (apparently, Zoom classes weren’t an option in those unprecedented times), she and the children head off back to London (via magically enchanted bed) to find Professor Emelius Browne (Charles Brunton) himself, so that Eglantine can learn the secret of Substitutiary Locomotion and assist in the War effort against the [redacted].
No, seriously, somehow in a musical all about World War Two and defeating the enemy, this musical is strangely against uttering the word [redacted].
Oh, for heaven’s sake. It starts with an N, ends with an i and involves a swastika and salute.
Like the movie itself, the stage adaptation doesn’t take itself too seriously. Very early on, it is clear that the theatrical language of this show is very stylised. Set pieces are constantly moved around by members of the ensemble. Characters go upstairs by standing still while portraits gradually sink to the floor around them. This element of the staging, which is doubtless largely due to budgetary and staging restrictions while on tour, aren’t apologised for, but are instead part of the show’s charm.
Ultimately, its this sense of whimsy which allows trickier moments to translate to stage, such as Portobello Road, or the entire land of Nopeepo (which involves talking animals, for those film aficionados) to work. It’s this which allows forced-perspective set pieces to read as realism within this creative universe, and for the audience to filter out the ensemble members operating the numerous puppets. The dynamic staging and choreography in these moments help to make up for the somewhat minimal set. (As a sidenote, there are some nice tributes in these animal characters’ names, such as Norton, the fish – a reference to the Bedknobs and Broomsticks source material’s author Mary Norton – Sherman, the bear – referencing the composing Sherman brothers – and Angela, the bird being a nod to the icon herself, Ms Angela Lansbury, the original Eglantine Price)
The set itself, designed by director and illusion designer Jamie Harrison, is minimal. Mostly, the stage is black with just a couple of physical set pieces, doubtless to enable the many complicated mechanisms through which the show’s requisite magic is achieved. The entire set is framed by the bombed out shell of the orphans’ home, and while this does introduce the entire story through the lens of the children’s shared trauma, this does sometimes detract from other moments during the show. While it works for the minimalism of Miss Price’s home, which seems to be more generic and abstract and quiet, when the action moves to the very real Portobello Road, or the extremely fantastical land of Nopeepo, having these stood on either side of the stage is somewhat distracting and prevents full immersion in these settings. It entirely makes thematic and stylistic sense, and it is used effectively for a touching end vignette. From a touring production standpoint, it also serves as somewhat of a homemade proscenium while moving from venue to venue, but it will be interesting to see whether this is maintained should a West End theatre prove forthcoming.
Obviously, this wouldn’t be a good adaptation of Bedknobs and Broomsticks without a healthy dose of magic. Fortunately, this theatrical production provides this in spades. Each illusion is utterly spectacular and genuinely beggars belief. Much as the effects could be listed, such as the eponymous broomstick and bed taking to the air or characters unexpectedly transfiguring into rabbits, or the spectacular finale involving multiple disembodied, floating objects, there is genuinely no way that an audience member could fathom exactly how they are achieved. Multiple moments throughout the show intentionally subvert the audience’s expectations of how these tricks are actualised.
“But wires!” I hear you cry. “Of course it’s wires!”
Yes, surprisingly enough, I have thought of wires. I, like you, have a brain, and I thought of wires as well. But how can wires work when Miss Price flies through a window that comes at her from every single angle? If she goes through the window, she cannot be suspended from above, or from below, and since it comes at her at an angle, that too suggests that the wires aren’t unexpectedly suspending her from side to side.
Similarly, my working assumption of the bed’s levitation through some sort of Elphaba lift has been disproved by the fact that it flies through an archway at one point.
So, the only reasonable assumption is that Jamie Harrison has made a Satanic pact in exchange for actual magic. Failing that, I will be exchanging sexual favours to cast members to obtain an actual working understanding of how these illusions are performed. Cast members, should you be there, head on over to my Contact page please and thank you.
Considering that these are the level of illusions that Harrison is capable of conjuring up (I couldn’t resist) in a touring production, it is exciting to imagine how these delights might develop and evolve were Bedknobs and Broomsticks to find a permanent home on the West End.
Adding to the nostalgic sense of whimsy is the score. Incorporating new material into already beloved music is no easy feat, but Neil Bartram’s additions are almost imperceptibly different to the already established musical language established by the Sherman Brothers. Make no mistake, just because this is a musical written in the 21st century, there are no hallmarks of contemporary musical theatre here. This is classic, old-school Disney at play, and there’s nothing more emotive than a brilliant soprano and a beefy strings section.
The cast are incredible. Heading them, of course, is Dianne Pilkington, who not only shows off her brilliant vocal prowess, but also her perfect comedic timing. Her relationship with the three children is wonderfully developed throughout the show, and shows the steely exterior give way into genuine affection. Charles Brunton is also accomplished as Professor Emelius Browne, but his patter-like songs were quite densely packed and many of these moments were lost amidst the opening-night acoustics.
All three of the children were absolutely charming. Conor O’Hara, as the only adult performer amongst them, lends a tremendous depth to Charlie and his trauma, as well as an enormous amount of fun, even though believing him a credible thirteen-year-old is somewhat of a stretch. Performing as the younger siblings Carrie and Paul, Sapphire Hagon and Aidan Oti were utterly captivating and assured. Aidan Oti in particular stole many moments of the show with his earnest, childlike wonder which allowed many of the small emotional moments to truly shine.
Critically, while paying a loving homage to the film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks does not take the source material as beholden. This is somewhat handy for tricky to achieve sequences, such as the football game with many animated animals which is significantly pared back, but results in an ending which is emotionally resonant but also feels like a betrayal and may be in need of an adjustment as this musical continues to develop.
Ultimately, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a highly dynamic and engaging theatre experience, with exciting, whimsical and creative staging and simply mind-blowing magical effects that shall entertain the whole family.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is currently touring the UK. For more information, click here.