Bedknobs and Broomsticks: Magical musical overstays its welcome

Review: There’s still much to enjoy in this stage version of the Disney classic

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Gaiety Theatre
★★★☆☆

“Treguna Mekoides and Trecorum Satis Dee!” So begins the spell that trainee witch Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington) wants to use to bring about the end of the second World War. “Substitutiary locomotion”, she tells us in song, is a “mystic power that’s far beyond the wildest notion/ It’s so weird, so feared, yet wonderful to see.” It can bring to life inanimate objects, and with the magic words she can summon an army large enough to defeat the looming shadows of evil that threaten the English countryside. “Substitutiary locomotion”, however, might be another word for theatrical magic, which Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison’s production of Bedknobs and Broomsticks has in abundance.

Based on the 1971 Disney film, the stage adaptation sticks closely to the filmic text, with Richard and Robert Sherman’s original music and lyrics enhanced by new songs from Neil Bartram. Harrison’s set revels in old-fashioned theatricality, cleverly using the ensemble cast to create the arresting opening sequence and to move physical set pieces on and off the stage as demanded. The film’s animated sequences are inventively re-envisioned by cartoonish props, fantastic puppets and Gabriella Slade’s shimmering costume design. The real spell that the production casts, however, is its technical wizardry: broomsticks dance and bedsteads fly and the audience quite literally cannot fathom how. The only answer they can come up with is magic, though a cynic might suggest that Simon Wilkinson’s light plays an instrumental role in sustaining the illusion.

There are spirited performances from Pilkington, in fine voice, Charles Brunton as Professor Emilius Browne, who rightly gives comedy precedence over cadence, and a fine supporting ensemble cast, completed by Jasper Hawes, Poppy Houghton and Conor O’Hara as the Rawlins children. However, despite the snazzy Nopeepo scenes at the start of Act II, the second half drags, with Bartram’s new songs and Brian Hill’s book stretched thin over two hours and thirty-five minutes. When the magical climax comes and Eglantine invokes the magic words, the rousing rendition of “Substitutiary locomotion” reconfirms that the best songs are the Sherman Brothers’ original ones and that sometimes a classic piece of work is better left alone.

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