Bedknobs, complete with bed to transport Carrie, left, Paul, Charlie, Prof Browne and Miss Price. Pictures: Johan Persson

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Every so often along comes a production that makes even a dyed in the wool theatre reviewer sit up and take notice, a show that not only ticks all the boxes but ticks a few more you never even thought of – and this is one of that rare breed.

It is just brilliant, engaging, wonderful family entertainment for all ages with a strong, easy to follow story, decent songs and nothing to shock maiden aunts or cause six-year-olds to ask awkward questions. In short - a perfect night out.

Based on Disney’s 1971 film the cast is led superbly by Dianne Pilkington as Miss Eglantine Price who brings bags of West End experience and star quality to the role along with a lovely voice. She is a witch (apprentice), a graduate of Prof Browne’s witchcraft correspondence course.

She is matched by Charles Brunton as the celebrated Professor (of not very good street magicianship one suspects) Emelius Browne.He is an actor who not only has West End credentials, all the way from the original Oliver! But played Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull in the West End and Broadway. We are talking a classy pair here.

The film was based on books written in 1943 and 1947, during and just after World War II by Mary Norton and we open with the Rawlins children, Carrie, Paul and Charlie going to bed in London during the Blitz. A bombing raid leaves them homeless and orphaned and sent to Pepperinge Eye on the Dorset coast as evacuees where they have been billeted with the rather scatty Miss Price.


Broomsticks, will travel, as Dianne Pilkington's Miss Price sweeps up into the skies

The no nonsense and even less fun Mrs Mason, (Susannah Van Den Berg), who you suspect just wants cheap labour for her farm, already has a barnful of evacuees, but is more than willing to take them on as extra help, but Mrs Hobday, (Jacqui Dubois), postmistress, museum curator and evacuee billeting co-ordinator is determined Miss Price should keep her promise to take the trio, which is a bit of a shock to Miss Price, who arrives to collect a parcel which looks suspiciously as if it contains a witch’s broom.

She had forgotten all about the children, and much else it appears, as she pursues her witch’s quest to end the war.

Charlie, the eldest, is played with wonderful flair by Conor O’Hara who is making his professional debut according to the programme, not that you would ever have guessed he wasn’t a seasoned pro if you hadn’t been told.

His Charlie, aged 13, is a bit like Frank Spencer on speed, crossed with Del Boy and Private Walker, full of ideas and making deals, and taking full responsibility as head of the family for his younger charges.

Carrie and Paul are played by an alternating cast of two sets of four: Dexter Barry, Hayden Court, Jasper Hawes and Aiden Oti as Paul and Evie Lightman, Poppy Houghton, Saphire Hagan and Isabella Bucknell as Carrie.


Paul, Charlie and Carrie, orphaned victims of war, alone in the world

The pairing on Press night, the nervous Carrie and the inquisitive Paul, with that endearing . . . and at times infuriating . . . lack of tact from a young child, did the production proud.

We follow the five heroes of the tale as Miss Price seeks a witch’s spell to defeat the darkest of enemies, the Nazis, so no more of our men had to die. Fears and hopes very much to the fore when the books were written.

We join the children and Miss Price on their flying bed, thanks to the bedknob - come on, it had to come in sometime to justify the title – as they search for Prof Browne, the exuberant and less than magical street magician, and not very successful conman. Once found we had the frantic search for the missing half of the ancient book of spells which he had used to cobble together his made up witch's course.

We even travel to the island of Nopeepo, whose existence was revealed  in Paul's pop-up book. It is a place where we meet a talking fish, Norton, swum by Rob Madge, along with a brightly coloured shoal, then Sherman the bear, voiced by Mark Anderson and Angela the bird, Emma Thornett and finally the lion king, voiced by Matthew Elliot- Campbell who is tricked by the Prof’s magic out of his medallion, the Star of Astaroth, which holds the incantation to the Substitutiary Locomotion spell – which, as we all should know, every witch and wizard needs in their arsenal.

The spell leads us to the final battle of good against evil and if you want to know how that goes, the box office is open.


A fishy tail as ever there was one with Norton and shoal in Nopeepo

There is good support from the ensemble and some quality dance numbers from choreographer Neil Bettles to give you a fast paced, colourful and lively production while special effects are as simple as they come, but oh so effective.

I have always said the best special effects are already there, in the audience – imagination. This is a show without computer-controlled electronics, no CGI, no laser imagery, we have clouds on sticks, push on and off trees and doorways, lots of puppets (Kenneth Macleod), with the most complex SFX being the flying bed and Miss Price on her broom, but even those are now standard fare these days.

There are a few magic tricks that work, costume changes, and the Prof and Charlie changed into rabbits. along with lots of simple effects anyone could see through – but the point is they worked, people believed. This was the ancient art of storytelling at its finest, a moving feast of simple and brilliantly co-ordinated scene changes, simple tricks and switches, lighting effects (Simon Wilkinson), brilliant stagecraft and an audience enthralled from start to finish.

The battle scenes against Nazi stormtroopers seemed a bit weak on the face of it but as the story moved on, you realised the supposed weakness was intentional to hide a clever twist to come in the closing scene.

I was with my grandchildren, the eldest 10, and a seasoned theatre goer, the advantage of a reviewing grandfather, and my youngest six, on the early steps of the journey, and they thought it was brilliant and loved parts and scenes you might expect the video game generation might find too tame for words. It pays to never underestimate a child’s imagination.

They didn’t see puppets, they saw a rabbit, a bear, a bird, a fish, a lion because that is what was in the story.

Songs are by the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert who wrote the film score as well as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the The Jungle Book among others and the music came from an excellent 12 piece orchestra under musical director Laura Bangay, and that is an enormous number for a touring production, giving a much more satisfying and full sound, and is a credit to producer Michael Harrison.

I have been reviewing for more than half a century now and shows like this remind you what a privilege the job is and what a magical place a theatre can be. Family entertainment to savour. Directed by Candice Edmunds, with clever set and illusion design by Jamie Harrison, the bedstead will be flying over the Alex to Sunday, 14-11-21.

Roger Clarke


Bedknobs and Broomsticks will be landing at Wolverhampton Grand from 05-09 April, 2022.

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