The genre of films that combine live action with animation is notoriously small, probably because of the huge technical challenges involved. Try and think of a dozen such movies and you may struggle – though Anchors Aweigh, Mary Poppins, Pete’s Dragon and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (the filming of which allegedly pushed Bob Hoskins to the edge of insanity) spring easily to mind. My own personal favourite is Walt Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), a film of great charm, and surprising pleasures. Broomsticks was blessed with a sprightly score from legendary, in-house composers the Sherman Brothers (they also wrote ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidococious’; enough said), two winning leads in Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson, a trio of likeable child actors, a flying bed, a trip to an undersea kingdom, an animal football match, and even a cameo from Bruce Forsyth. Yes, really.
The original story has been skilfully adapted by playwright Brian Hill in this spanking new stage musical. For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s the tale of eccentric misfit Eglantine Price, owner of a seaside house in England who has three orphaned children – Charlie, Carrie and Paul – foisted upon her in WW2. Initially, both parties view each other with wariness. But the children warm to Eglantine when they discover she is a trainee witch, enrolled in a correspondence course run by phony wizard, Emelius Browne. Eglantine informs Browne of her plan to find the magic words for a spell known as ‘Substitutiary Locomotion’, which brings inanimate objects to life, and will hopefully help the British war effort in defeating the Germans. What they need first is the powerful star of Astroroth, which can only be found in the distant, animal isle of Naboombu. How will they get there? A flying bed of course.
Neil Bartram has rearranged the original Sherman Brothers songs, opening them out, and giving them a bit of extra zip (whilst adding a few songs of his own). ‘A Step in the Right Direction’ is a highlight, accompanying Eglantine’s ham-fisted attempts at learning to fly on a broom. The musical jewel in the score, of course, is ‘The Beautiful Briny’, a lovely, woozy number which signals the group’s arrival in Naboombu: here Eglantine and Emelius waltz in a fishy, undersea bar. Director Candice Edwards and Jamie Harrison – responsible for set and illusion design – conjure real magic in scenes like this, cleverly mixing puppetry, movement and sumptuous lighting.
Conor O’Hara as Charlie Rawlins comes across as an all round good egg, and he’s given solid support by a rotating team of child actors in the roles of Carrie and Paul. It’s pot luck who you see at each performance so it’s only fair to mention everybody: Dexter Barry, Isabella Bucknell, Haydn Court, Sapphire Hagan, Jasper Hawes, Poppy Houghton, Evie Lightman and Aidan Oti.
Charles Brunton brings an impish yet haunted quality to Emelius, signalling the character’s sense of having missed out on love. What’s surprising about this show is that’s it’s romantic. How refreshing to see two older characters – both loners, both independent – starting to fall for each other. The burgeoning affection between Eglantine and Emelius is touching, though not without some bumps along the road. ‘I’ll only let you down’, says the latter, ashamed of his charlatan like past.
The world is filled with actors who work mostly on stage, and aren’t necessarily household names. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a following. Dianne Pilkington is clearly a triple threat, a performer who can do everything. As Eglantine, she is never less than fabulous, and it’s easy to imagine some people falling in love with the character, an Ever Ready battery of resilience and British pluck. Pilkington even brings a soupcon of prim sexiness to the role. I overheard two young men in the bar trying to figure out which hotel she was staying in. If the merchandise stall had carried an Eglantine Price action figure I’m sure they would have bought one (as would I).
It’s taken 50 years for Bedknobs and Broomsticks to reach the stage. Was it worth the wait? These days, every show gets a standing ovation on opening night but in this case, it was justified. Bedknobs and Broomsticks is something special.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is at The Palace Theatre, Manchester from 19-24 October and then touring nationwide.