Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Book by Brian Hill , original music by Richard M and Robert B Sherman with new and music and lyrics by Neil Bartram
Michael Harrison
Palace Theatre, Manchester

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks Credit: Johan Persson
Bedknobs and Broomsticks Credit: Johan Persson
Bedknobs and Broomsticks Credit: Johan Persson
Bedknobs and Broomsticks Credit: Johan Persson
Bedknobs and Broomsticks Credit: Johan Persson
Bedknobs and Broomsticks Credit: Johan Persson

Returning to hosting live entertainment after the pandemic, The Palace Theatre and Opera House in Manchester have taken a tried and tested approach, concentrating on old favourites that have done the rounds before. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a new musical and most definitely a big night out, shows a welcome return of confidence.

During World War II, The Rawlings siblings, orphaned by an air raid, are evacuated to the countryside and housed with the eccentric Miss Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington). The children are stunned to learn Miss Price is not only an apprentice witch she is an ambitious one—planning to use magic to aid the UK’s war effort. Travelling to London to acquire the missing parts of her correspondence course in magic, she is horrified to discover her teacher, Professor Browne (Charles Brunton), is a charlatan so cynical he failed to realise the spells were genuine. The group go on a journey to acquire the necessary ingredients for the final spell, even though it necessitates travelling to lands populated by talking animals.

Considering Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a fantasy aimed at a young audience, joint directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison take an uncompromising grown-up approach that does not shy away from dark aspects of the story. The Rawlings children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the loss of their parents and cannot endure loud noises. The bombing of their home is depicted graphically as a cosy welcoming bedroom set (designed by Harrison) which is ripped apart revealing a shattered landscape under a blood red moon. The children’s journey to the country is nightmarish and confused creating uncertainty if they are being rescued or taken prisoner.

There is, however, an innocent sweetness to the production. It features an indomitable postmistress and Londoners who, possibly as a tribute to Dick Van Dyke, speak in a ‘Cor Blimey Guv’ Cockney dialect. The music is in the rousing singalong style of the music hall.

In many ways, the show is a tribute to the magic of theatre rather than to childhood belief. The magical illusions designed by Harrison in consultation with Chris Fisher, including Miss Price flying on a broomstick, a bed occupied by her and the children taking flight and various inanimate objects coming to life, are flawless. Yet they are performed in a matter-of-fact manner integrated into the story rather than as big showstoppers.

The success of many of the illusions is due to the work of the ensemble. Dressed in period clothing or, in act two, futuristic amphibian costumes by Gabriella Slade, they manipulate parts of the set and various puppets. A motorcycle bouncing along is represented by the ensemble spinning wheels and holding parts of the vehicle around the cast. The ensemble moving clouds and trees around suggests momentum during the flying scenes. They enhance the spooky atmosphere by becoming part of the background, blending into the set and holding props while providing backing vocals.

While the show does not lack spectacle, it always serves the plot. London’s Portobello Road market is exaggerated to become a glorious full-on bazaar, but the sequence serves also to establish Charles Brunton’s Professor Browne as a conman who loves his duplicitous profession revelling in the minor acts of fraud on display. A lush staging of an underwater dance contest helps to push along the romance between the professor and Miss Price.

Audiences familiar with the original film will find some surprises in the stage version. Author Brian Hill makes a major change to the concluding part of the story which also helps to resolve the issue of how to enact a major battle on stage.

The film mixed live action with animation. Onstage, cartoons are replaced by puppets but, rather than exaggerated fantasy creatures, they have a realistic tone with a suitably scary lion.

Dianne Pilkington’s Miss Price initially seems emotionally remote rather than lovably eccentric, while Charles Brunton’s Professor Browne is a genuine cad redeemed only by being self-aware and ashamed of his attitudes. Rather than an attraction, the pair share a growing awareness they might be able help each other solve their deficiencies which gradually and charmingly evolves into romance.

Although primarily aimed at younger audiences, the challenging tone of the stage version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is appealing also to adults. The show becomes, therefore, a fine example of the ability of theatre to enchant and engage all ages.

Reviewer: David Cunningham