It says something about the surreal state of the world that Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks felt chillingly on point at Northampton Royal & Derngate last night.
The show opens with a clever montage of scenes from the Blitz in wartime London, nimbly describing how the Rawlins children lose their parents and home in an air-raid and are evacuated to the village of Pepperingeye where further adventures await.
A year ago the wartime setting was a call back to a distant time of broken buildings, displaced families and the looming shadow of enemy invaders reaching out of propaganda posters.
In March 2022 such scenes constitute the actuality of news from Eastern Europe and much like Charlie, Carrie and Paul we find ourselves aboard an unlikely vehicle to witness the timeless battle between fantasy and reality play out once again.
Diane Pilkington slots comfortably into the role of Eglantine Price – an aspiring witch on a mission to learn a spell that could turn the tide of the war – who finds herself custodian of the bewildered orphans.
She delivers a perfectly balanced mix of absent minded professor and super nanny authority and her clownishly incompetent love interest Emelius Browne played by Charles Brunton seems to be batting well above his average in this match.
The songs for the original musical, like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, were written by Richard and Robert Sherman. I didn’t know this show as well as those but the Sherman style is so distinctive I strangely felt like I did, almost to the point where I could sing along with songs I was hearing for the first time.
The most famous scene from the Disney movie is the animated underwater journey to the tune ‘Bobbing Along’ and it is one of the showpiece moments of this production. The theatrical craft on display as big screen magic is recreated using real world performance skills is genuinely awe inspiring. It also fits beautifully with the fantasy versus reality theme of the overall story. Set and illusion designer Jamie Harrison has really earned his corn.
The one small bump in the road is that I found it hard to buy into the idea of Charlie Rawlins being a 13-year-old. Conor O’Hara as Charlie goes full Tommy Steele and fizzes with musical theatre energy which you wouldn’t want to lose, so maybe the simplest thing is to avoid mentioning the age he is supposed to be.
All the performances are strong but I suspect you will come away feeling that the theatrical skills of the entire group are the real stardust on show in this production, delivering magical action and spectacle with a wink and a twinkle in the eye.
One of my favourite moments of the whole thing was during one of the motorbike scenes. It was the way the performer playing the front wheel smiled like a receptionist at the audience as he executed the role. It was a look that said: If you believe it’s a motorbike, and I believe it’s a motorbike, we’re all good aren’t we? And that is mining the essence of magic right there.
The show is touring and is in Northampton until Saturday.