Three children cower in fear on the floor as enemy bombs drop all around them. Their parents are dead and they are sent to the bucolic countryside to live out the rest of the war in safety.
That’s the concept of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, written by Leighton Buzzard novelist Mary Norton during World War II and set in the Blitz. With everything that’s now happening in the Ukraine there couldn’t be a more timely and relevant story.
Bedknobs was a hugely successful 1970s Disney film that has now been turned into a magical and spellbinding stage musical which is currently touring the UK.
The producers could never have envisaged that today, as the children of the UK celebrate the work of Mary Norton (who also wrote The Borrowers) on World Book Day that their family-friendly and enchanting show should now have a far darker and more thought-provoking significance.
In light of current events I’m sure I wasn’t the only person at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate last night who was moved by the story.
It’s a wondrous show but some of the lustre was tarnished by thoughts of the children of the Ukraine who no doubt wished their suffering could be simply ended with a magic spell.
It’s funny how your mind can play tricks. It’s more than 50 years since I first saw the screen version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks that starred Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson and I recall it as a jaunty, feel-food magical fantasy.
It was a belated follow-up to Mary Poppins with similar characters, story and original music (both written by the Sherman Brothers) and featured toe-tapping tunes, animation and likeable, eccentric British types. Perhaps the war theme went straight over my young head.
The stage production, however, is a wonderful blend of charm, whimsy and derring-do. An enchanting story of heroism, sorcery and compassion. And for youngsters there is simply the magic of some quite spectacular flying and animation stunts.
Centre to the story are three children – Charlie, Carrie and Paul – who have been shipped out of London to the wilds of Dorset to escape the bombing of the Battle of Britain.
They are traumatised by their experiences and let their imaginations run riot as they attempt to make sense of their situation.
They are taken in, reluctantly, by apprentice witch Eglantine Price who is secretly trying to come up with a magic spell which will send inanimate objects into battle instead of the country’s young men.
But little does she know that the witchcraft correspondence course she has been taking is all a con by showman and failed magician Emelius Browne.
When she learns the truth, and with a bit of arm-twisting by Charlie, she embarks on a mission to find the spell and save the country from destruction. All they need is faith and a vivid imagination.
Dianne Pilkington and Charles Brunton are an absolute triumph as Price and Browne. She gives a charismatic turn, casting a spell on the entire show with her charm and he wins your hearts with a pitch perfect turn as a reluctant hero.
Brunton’s endearing Browne is terrifically eccentric and he turns a thief and charlatan into a loveable rogue with a heart of gold.
The West End stalwarts light up the stage – which is a welcome relief from the Stygian darkness of the special low-level lighting for the set design – and it’s refreshing to see a strong woman in the lead.
There are some great set pieces such as Portabello Road (fab costumes Gabriella Slade!) and The Beautiful Briny plus a second act dive into a surreal new adventure that could only have come from a chld’s fervid imagination.
Jamie Harrison’s creative set and astonishing illusion designs are pure magic.
Candice Edmunds‘ direction and Simon Wilkinson’s atmospheric lighting never let us forget the bigger picture of looming wartime invasion.
Finally a big shout out to the hard-working members of the ensemble and swing who move sets, fill marketplaces, support the show’s puppets and play minor roles in this enthralling and captivating production.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks plays in the Derngate auditorium until Saturday, March 5.