Bell, Book and Candle

John Van Druten
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Geoffrey Breton (Anthony), Adam Barlow (Nicholas) and Emma Pallant (Gillian) Credit: Andrew Billington
Emma Pallant (Gillian) Credit: Andrew Billington
Janice McKenzie (aunt Queenie) and Emma Pallant (Gillian) Credit: Andrew Billington

When a play is described as “rarely performed”, it can mean it is not as good as the writer’s other works, it is difficult to stage, it has a big cast which has financial implications or it is not relevant in today’s society.

John Van Druten is primarily known for I Am a Camera which formed the basis of Joe Masteroff’s book for the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret.

Bell, Book and Candle is arguably not as good as I Am a Camera. It has only five actors—not forgetting a cat—and with the expertise of the New Vic creative team it is not hard to bring the play to life in the north Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round.

Former New Vic artistic director Gwenda Hughes who directs Bell, Book and Candle has moved it from the 1950s to the ‘70s. The reasoning is that the play’s central themes about a woman having to choose between her career and her private life along with the relationship between power and responsibility are more poignant in a modern, contemporary setting.

So all the elements are there for Bell, Book and Candle to be a success. And in typical New Vic style, the acting and staging are first-rate; at times the performances are really memorable.

But Bell, Book and Candle as a play falls down for me because of one intrinsic element: the career the woman may have to sacrifice is that of a witch.

Van Druten’s premise that London is overrun with witches and warlocks is highly implausible. The idea that central character Gillian Holroyd can cast a spell on Anthony Henderson, the man who lives in the flat above her, so that he throws everything up for her also takes some believing. Such a situation can happen in real life; but the way Gillian and her family come up with strange incantations to get their own way sounds a load of mumbo jumbo.

Much of the blame for this must rest with Van Druten. His witches and warlocks appear selfish and conniving: Gillian, for instance, can be very hard and self-centred—there is little sympathy for her until near the end of the play when she gives up her powers because she has fallen in love, something witches are not allowed to do

Emma Pallant gives an exceptional performance as Gillian. Her metamorphosis from her hard-heartedness in the first half into a crying, blushing human towards the end is commendable.

There are solid displays by Geoffrey Breton as Anthony, Adam Barlow as Gillian’s rule-breaking brother Nicholas and Janice McKenzie as their mischievous aunt Queenie.

Mark Chatterton is charismatic as Sidney Redlitch, the drunken writer who in a room full of witches and warlocks reckons he would be able to recognise one instantly. It is a pity Van Druten did not make more of the character.

At least the play is better than the film starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon which was turned into a rom-com in which everyone lives happily ever after.

But the acting, set and costumes, as enchanting as they are in this New Vic production, do not make up for the questionable script. There is not enough magic and it certainly did not leave me spellbound.

Reviewer: Steve Orme