REVIEW: Bedknobs and Broomsticks UK tour (Orchard Theatre, Dartford)

Everyone has a list of favourite childhood films and, as you might expect from a family of musical theatre lovers, Disney films feature heavily on ours. As regular readers know, we’re also rather partial to musicals about witches so it will come as no surprise that one VHS tape that got a lot of use in both our childhood homes was the 1971 classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. We were very excited when we heard that a stage adaptation of the film would be flying off on a UK tour in 2021/22, so we bobbed along to the Orchard Theatre, Dartford last night to see whether it lived up to expectations.

The marketing material for Bedknobs and Broomsticks bears the tagline “The Magical Musical” and it absolutely fits the bill. It’s a fantastic adaptation, which stays sufficiently faithful to the film to evoke the requisite nostalgia while breathing new life into such a well-loved classic. Screen to stage adaptations can be tricky to get right, with audiences often having very specific expectations, but the Bedknobs and Broomsticks creative team have done an absolutely brilliant job with this one. Brian Hill’s book takes the original story and builds on the premise of the iconic song “The Age of Not Believing” to create a central theme about the healing power of stories. This concept is woven throughout the fabric of this cleverly crafted production which, unlike many Disney productions, does not go all out with an elaborate, flashy set. Instead, the ensemble are used to brilliant effect, moving props and scenery to create the sense that we are watching a story being constructed on stage.

The Bedknobs and Broomsticks company. Credit: Johan Persson

That’s not to say that there aren’t any special effects at all. Quite the contrary. As you would expect from the mastermind behind the illusions in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jamie Harrison (Director/Set and Illusion Designer) has created a spellbinding concoction of tricks which will leave audiences in awe. And it’s this careful contrast between the low-tech elements and the truly magical moments which makes the incredible illusions seem all the more impressive.

All the best known songs from the film make an appearance, supplemented by new material from composer and lyricist, Neil Bartram. The new songs are very much written in Sherman Brothers style (so much so that you almost feel as if you know them already) and blend beautifully with the classics like Portobello Road” and “The Beautiful Briny”. The underwater scene is expanded in the stage show, with the introduction of Norton the fish, who is puppeteered to perfection by the one and only Rob Madge. (For any musical theatre fans not already familiar with Rob, we thoroughly recommend that you follow them on Twitter for some amazing video content, including snippets from behind the scenes on the Bedknobs and Broomsticks tour!) Latin dance purists may flinch a little during this segment, but it’s an imaginary dance competition set under the sea on a fictional island so we’ll let it go.

Rob Madge as Norton the fish, and the company of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Credit: Johan Persson

Gone is the football match from the film but in its place is an entertaining scene filled with plenty of old school magic, and we loved the stunning King Leonidas the Lion puppet. (Puppetry in general is a particular highlight of this production.) The ending is also much changed from the film. There was a fleeting moment where Mummy wondered whether it was a case of simply replacing one tired trope (orphaned children get adopted and live happily ever after) with another (which we don’t want to spoil) but it’s done incredibly well, fittingly leaving the ending to the audience’s imagination.

A fantastic show deserves a fantastic cast and there are no problems on that front either. Dianne Pilkington may have rather large showbiz shoes to fill in stepping into a role originated by Angela Lansbury but she very much makes the role of Eglantine Price her own. There’s also something really quite satisfying about seeing a former Glinda defying gravity astride a broom! Charles Brunton also makes a very different Emelius Browne to the film’s David Tomlinson, really revelling in playing the role of a second rate street magician! Conor O’Hara makes a great cheeky Cockney as eldest child, Charlie Rawlins, alongside a rotating cast of child actors. We saw Poppy Houghton as Carrie and Dexter Barry as Paul, both of whom were superb. The munchkins (who, like many children across the country, are deep into rehearsals for the school Christmas play at the moment) were absolutely in awe of this talented pair of youngsters.

Diane Pilkington as Elantine Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Credit: Johan Persson

In case it wasn’t already apparent, we were really very impressed by Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and judging by the excited chatter as we left the auditorium we were definitely not alone. (One question which seemed to be on many people’s lips was how on earth do they make the bed fly?!) In a week where Rose Ayling-Ellis has highlighted the lack of accessibility in theatre, it was also brilliant to see a sign-interpreted performance. Both muchkins were very excited when they spotted the interpreter at the side of the stage and we would love to see this more often (as well as captioned performances becoming the norm).

A spellbinding production, filled with music, magic and a healthy dose of nostalgia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks provides a perfect evening of escapism. And after the last couple of years, we could all do with a little make believe. So it’s time to start believing and get booking for this magical musical.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks plays at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford from 24 to 28 November 2021, as part of a UK tour. We received complimentary tickets to the press performance on Thursday 25 November.