Thanks to Wales Millennium Centre for providing us with tickets to Bedknobs and Broomsticks for the purpose of this review
When restrictions forced Wales Millennium Centre to close suddenly just before Christmas, it meant Disney’s Beauty and the Beast couldn’t finish its run in Cardiff. So it seems fitting that another Disney musical should have the honour of taking to the stage as the venue reopens its doors to the public once again.
Step forward Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which is in Cardiff until Saturday as part of its World Premiere UK and Ireland tour. Based on the much-loved Disney film from 1971, which is in turn based on the stories of Mary Norton (she of The Borrowers fame), it’s way less lavish, colourful and flamboyant than Beauty and the Beast and indeed other Disney stage musicals – but it’s still filled with magic, humour, and a charm of its own.
Set in war-time London, the moving opening sequence sees three siblings orphaned and evacuated to the countryside. We see their house destroyed and the children packed onto a train, all without a single word being uttered. It’s very powerful.
As fans of the film will know, the children – Charlie, Carrie and Paul – are sent to live with the quirky and mysterious Miss Eglantine Price. They soon discover that their host is a trainee witch, convinced that her magic can win the war. Casting a spell on a bedknob enables the children’s bed to fly, and the four head off to search for Professor Emelius Browne, Miss Price’s tutor, who they hope will have the missing spell they need to defeat the enemy. Browne joins them on their adventures as they head to the markets of Portobello Road, to the Island of Napeepo (renamed from Naboombu in the film) and back home where the enemy is advancing.
For the most part, it’s fairly faithful to the film (although an unexpected twist which I won’t spoil added a whole new dimension to the story and really got us talking as a family). The Sherman Brothers’ much-loved musical numbers such as The Age of Not Believing, Portobello Road, The Beautiful Briny and Substitutiary Locomomotion are joined by new songs written by Neil Bartram.
The creative team do an incredible job of bringing the magic of the film to the stage. Characters are turned into rabbits, shoes, clothes and sets of armour move magically by themselves, and of course, there’s the flying bed, which causes spontaneous applause in the audience when it takes flight for the first time. The illusions are all so smooth and effortless-looking on the stage, and you can only imagine the technical wizardry and hours of rehearsals needed to make it look that way.
The setting and lighting is dark and atmospheric throughout. I must admit I was hoping for something a little brighter and more colourful when they landed in Napeepo – in the film, this is a blend of live action and animation – but the use of puppetry for the animal characters is so clever, with the creations moving animatedly around the stage. Sadly, although understandably, the football scene from the film doesn’t feature, but through magic and illusion the heroes still manage to pull one over on the tyrannical king, a lion who hates people.
Dianne Pilkington plays Miss Eglantine Price, a role so immortalised on film by Angela Lansbury it must have felt overwhelming to take it on, but she makes it her own, with a firm but tender persona and elements of humour. As Emelius Browne, Charles Brunton combines eccentricity with kindness and warmth as he learns to believe in magic and love.
Conor O’Hara plays Charlie – it does feel a little strange having an adult playing the 13 year old eldest child (a little older than the film in which he’s 11 years old), when his younger siblings are played by actual children. His musical number Negotiality is fun and vibrant, while of all the children he has the biggest emotional journey.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks has an age guidance of 6+ which feels about right; there are a couple of moments that younger children may find slightly scary. It’s good family entertainment but with a lot of depth too.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff until Saturday 5 February 2022. Limited tickets are still available. For more information visit the website.
Covid regulations: In compliance with the Welsh government, everyone aged 18+ is required to show a Covid pass before entering the theatre and those aged 11+ are expected to wear masks during the performance (unless exempt).
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