Bedknobs and Broomsticks review – Disney fantasy is a bumpy flight

Well, hocus pocus and substitutiary locomotion! Half a century after the Disney caper cast its spell on screen, Bedknobs and Broomsticks has been transformed into a stage musical. There are extra songs, deft illusions by Jamie Harrison – one of the wizards behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – and fuller backstories for the young wartime evacuees and their reluctant host, apprentice witch Eglantine Price, in the village of Pepperinge Eye.

The three children are orphans in this version, directed by Harrison and Candice Edmunds, with a book by Brian Hill and additional music and lyrics by Neil Bartram. After a glimpse of their cosy home in London, Harrison’s set cracks apart, leaving two hulking bombed-out facades framing the action. It’s a constant reminder of the danger which threatens to engulf them once more with the imminent arrival of the Nazis. Unlike in the film, that enemy is never directly named and the darkness looming behind this show’s flights of fancy grows more open to interpretation, not least amid a pandemic.

Devotees of the film, adapted from Mary Norton’s books, may well be wondering: what are the new songs like, how does Dianne Pilkington fare as Price (indelibly portrayed by Angela Lansbury) and what about Cosmic Creepers, one of cinema’s rattiest cats? Taken in order: the songs catch the brisk jollity of the Sherman brothers’ originals but lack the instantly hummable quality; Pilkington, dressed smartly by designer Gabriella Slade, brings brusque wit as her distaste for the children dissolves into affection; regrettably, her cranky feline companion is referenced only by an oil painting.

That’s a shame because the puppetry includes a mini-Eglantine on her broom (adding little to the scene where the children discover her witchcraft); the rabbit from her signature spell; and the glowing fish and lion king of Nopeepo (renamed from Naboombu), the island visited on their trusty magical bed. That section of the film brings its catchiest song, The Beautiful Briny, and the animated escapade with a menagerie of animals playing football. The match is cut from the show while the underwater routine in the Briny Ballroom lacks a lightness of touch even if the outfits shimmer. With so little plot, Bedknobs and Broomsticks needs set pieces that dazzle and the big sequences here – the paean to fakery, Portobello Road; the dancing nightgowns; the climactic battle with a bodiless army – require sharper delivery. Curiously, the flying bed isn’t given a big Aladdin-style magic-ride number. The movement more generally should be done “with a flair” in the words of Price’s unlikely tutor, trickster Emelius Browne.

It is well played across the board and Charles Brunton has the right glint as Browne who gets a rambunctious introductory solo, Emelius the Great, but another new song, It’s Now, lacks the lyrical and musical brio his newfound courage requires. The oldest child, チャーリー (Conor O’Hara), becomes 13 rather than 11, and more of a substitute father to his siblings, and I missed that character’s hard-nosed spikiness in the film. His solo, Negotiality, is one of the few times the new material truly chimes with the eccentricity of the original. Having a teenage Charlie raises “the age of not believing”, Price’s wistful ode to how make-believe is eclipsed by self-belief, and a related plot twist seriously undermines the story’s magical quality for younger audiences.

Another apprentice sorceress, Mildred Hubble, recently had a stage outing in Theresa Heskins’ production of The Worst Witch, which emitted an ebullient sense of fun. 対照的に, Bedknobs and Broomsticks seems a touch cumbersome but it may yet begin to bob along as it proceeds on tour.

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