Bedknobs and Broomsticks UK Tour - Theatre Royal Plymouth Review
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
(Please note, I could not find a cast board anywhere at the performance I attended, therefore I apologise in advance if I get any names of the cast wrong as I am unsure if there were any understudies on and cannot be completely sure as to which children were performing)
Not another screen to stage adaptation, I hear you cry, and okay, maybe sometimes I have to agree, there’s a lot of them out there and a growing lack in new original work, but okay hear me out. Sometimes there is a movie that it just screaming out to be adapted for the stage, and sometimes that adaptation can be a long time coming. Let me take you back to the 60’s, when Walt Disney and his team were fighting it out with P L Travers over Mary Poppins and for the time being, the team had put another magical tale on the back burner, plodding along nicely (or should we say bobbing along) as they worked on the tale of the magical nanny. Following the release of Mary Poppins in 1964, with its ferocious success, the team turned their attention back to the movie that had they been working on before, and that movie became the iconic Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
With magic spells, memorable songs, larger than life settings and a story that would suit all ages, it’s surprising that it’s taken so many years for Bedknobs and Broomsticks to reach the stage, but here we finally are, with a brand new stage production that pushes the limits on what is possible to achieve with the aid of special effects and grabs the attention and imagination of everyone, young or old, in the captivated audience.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks tells the tale of Charlie, Carrie, and Paul Rawlins (Conor O’Hara, Poppy Houghton, and Haydn Court (I believe)) orphaned siblings sent out to the countryside during the blitz of London where they are placed under the care of one Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington). When they discover that she is training to become a witch, the children are whisked away on a whirlwind adventure with the help of a magical travelling bed as they enlist the help of Eglantine’s witching college professor Emelius Browne (Charles Brunton) in order to discover one final spell, one that could help to win the war.
Dianne Pilkington makes the role of Eglantine Price her own, both paying tribute to the role made famous by Angela Lansbury and adding her own spin to it. Whilst determined and serious about finding the much-needed spell, Pilkington’s Miss Price also has a cheeky side and a wicked sense of humour, something that bounces off of Brunton’s fun loving big dreaming Emelius Browne very well. The pair have a wonderful chemistry and are clearly loving every moment of the production. Brunton’s Professor Browne is a showman, delighting in making the audience laugh whilst also being able to showcase a more emotional side as his character is forced to decide what is best for him and for others.
The young stars playing the roles of Paul and Carrie (Haydn Court and Poppy Houghton I believe) make it clear that we can rest assured that the future of musical theatre is in safe hands. They have to handle a lot, not only a large number of musical numbers but also working with many special effects, a quickly moving set and many difficult topics such as loss, fear, and grief. With Conor O’Hara taking on the role of oldest brother Charlie, the trio are lovable, easily winning over the audience within the opening minutes of the show and having them in the palm of their hands for the entirety.
Conor O’ Hara, fresh from Drama School and making his professional debut, gives a commanding performance as Charlie Rawlins, a character who feels forced to step up for his younger siblings, to protect them and to find the best life for them. Despite the amount of responsibility that he has to take on, he is nevertheless fun loving and cheeky, believing that he has the power to negotiate his way out of any situation. I find it a charming coincidence that his big number ‘Negotiality’ reminded me of The Happiest Millionaire’s ‘Fortuosity’, performed in the 1967 Disney Movie by Tommy Steele, for O’ Hara’s performance reminded me very much of Steele’s performances in films such as The Happiest Millionaire and Half a Sixpence. A cheeky grin, energetic dancing, and a natural flair for comedy making for a character and a performance that you can’t help but love. I look forward to seeing what this young man does next, for I believe he has a successful career ahead of him.
This is a production that is a true love letter to the power of the ensemble, for the company not only play a multitude of different roles including Portobello Road venders, fish, civilians and much more but also handling many different puppets and being responsible for moving the set around, making a number of the special effects even more effective. As an ensemble, armed with lights, they play the magic, they create the magic and they truly encapsulate the magic of a united company, working in complete unity. Rob Madge’s Norton the fish was loved by the audience, as were all the puppets designed by Kenneth MacLeod. From fish played by the ensemble, and a delightfully, sweet bear (Mark Anderson), an overworked bird (Emma Thornett) and the monstrous lion of a king (Matthew Elliot-Campbell), the puppets bring the animated section of the film to life
With productions such as Mary Poppins and Back to the Future already seeing how far they can push special effects on stage, for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Jamie Harrison’s illusions take it a large step further forwards. How they made it all happen; how the bed flew, how clothing and broomsticks danced by themselves and how people become rabbits were the talk of the audience both in the interval and as we poured out of the theatre and even know when I think back to it, I still can’t work out how it all worked. The magic of theatre reaches a whole new level with this production, truly capturing the imagination of the audience and leaving us with the biggest grins on our faces. The effects in this show set a standard, and one that may be hard to beat.
Whilst this stage production of Bedknobs and Broomsticks may take some darker turns then the film, it remains the family entertainment that we all loved in the original movie. There is magic, there is a touch of romance, there is comedy and there is wonder. For a couple of hours, we are taken away to a world where cartoons can come to life, where beds soar through the clouds and where just a little touch of magic can make anything possible. Whilst the tour continues around the UK, I shall count down the days until a West End transfer is announced because for a production of this standard, it is bound to happen and, in my opinion, bound to happen soon. Watch this space.
Images found via Google, not my own