Friday, April 29, 2022

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – illusionary theatre elevated by the Disney sparkle (Grand Opera House until Sunday 1 May)

Evacuated from London to the English countryside during the Blitz, three orphaned siblings explore loss, companionship and self-belief against a backdrop of war, witchcraft and wizardry. Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks is on stage in the Grand Opera House this week.

The wordless opening five-minute sequence sets up both the story and the sense of quality to be expected from the rest of the production. Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison along with choreographer Neil Bettles succeed in removing clunkiness from the scene changes and the enormous number of moving props, while making sure the audience understand how everything is achieved … right up to the point the magic and ‘substitutiary locomotion’ take over.

A heavy sprinkling of Disney’s production magic means this film adaptation translates to the stage with aplomb. Nips and tucks have been made – the Island of Naboombu has become the more puntastic Nopeepo – but nothing unforgivable. The Sherman Brothers’ songs from the film are there, augmented with new material by Neil Bartram. Puppetry is used throughout to bring out the fantasy elements and to animate some of the magic.

The special effects are mostly seamless and wow the audience. A moving train is a neat starter and a warm-up for the well-choreographed ensemble who handle the many layers of props. Flying a broomstick through an open window is another nonchalant appetiser, whetting the appetite before a bedknob is finally twisted, a spell is cast, and a bed flies to London and beyond. Oh, and did I mention turning people into rabbits and then back again in front of your eyes!

Dianne Pilkington cuts a much warmer figure as Miss Price than the film’s Angela Lansbury. The spark between trainee witch Price and her illusionary correspondence course professor Emelius Browne (Charles Brunton) isn’t particularly well defined: they suddenly announce their attraction with little convincing foreshadowing. Browne’s shift from avuncular to amateur magician was better painted. That said, they’re great on stage together, and their voices meld well with the impressive Rawlins’ children – Conor O’Hara making a great professional debut as eldest sibling and now head of the family Charlie, and joined at my matinee performance* by the talented Poppy Houghton (Carrie) and Jasper Hawes (Paul).

* though that could be wrong as it never seems to be made clear which two of the eight children are performing at any particular show!

While both fictional and imaginary, it’s intriguing to realise that the premise (presumably taken from Mary Norton’s 1940’s children’s books) is to send normally inanimate objects into battle in the place of men, rather than to use magic powers to cease the conflict. It works for the purposes of entertainment, even if it does nothing to diminish bloodshed on the enemy side.

Using moving head lights as follow spots is the one area of the production that lacks the Disney sheen. Like somewhat drunken beams, they tended to catch up with a performer’s face just in time for the actor to shift across the stage again, leaving Pilkington/Price in puzzling shade for parts of The Beautiful Briny.

Local Northern Ireland producer Cahoots NI often weaves illusions and how-did-they-do-that moments into its stage and online shows, subtly like Secrets of Space which is currently touring North America, and with move vigour such as Milo’s Hat Trick, The Assistant’s Revenge or Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace. But to keep the rate of trickery up throughout the show on a stage the size of the Grand Opera House is a sophisticated and impressive operation. While the music is less familiar than Bedknobs’ contemporary Mary Poppins, the big numbers like Portobello Road have that same warm feeling of bustle and vitality as the principals dart around the market stalls.

All in all, it’s a rather ambitious film adaptation that delivers a visual and musical spectacle, and will charm young and old. I suspect this tour won’t be the end of the production. Bedknobs and Broomsticks closes its UK tour this week with its final two performances in the Grand Opera House on Sunday 1 May.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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