REVIEW: Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until October 17

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

Bedknobs and Broomsticks, photo Johan Persson
Bedknobs and Broomsticks, photo Johan Persson

Live theatre is back, and the shows are getting bigger. Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre has already hosted a range of shows, but it has really missed those grand touring musicals. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, at the theatre this week, thrillingly fills that void.

The Congress, like some majestic airliner, has been easing back to action, out of long storage in the hangar, rolling on the runway while all those controls are checked for take-off, and firing those engines on full power. And with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the theatre once again takes ecstatic flight.

In the noisy, animated foyer there were so many old faces to recognise, and so many friendships to renew, that the show almost went up late. We all needed to re-learn the art of theatre-going: shall we buy a programme? Which doors for the raised stalls, please? (Oh, and how does a reviewer manage to scribble his notes in semi-darkness?) But then house lights dimmed, Laura Bungay’s dynamic band struck up, and a packed house – on a school night – was enthralled by the whole spectacle.

If some youngsters were a little bleary next morning, so be it. This show is for them, and it fires the imagination in them. As long as there are children, they will climb through the back of wardrobes, slide down rabbit-holes, and discover magical worlds. The grown-ups will suspend their scepticism and chuckle along, as a fantastical story unfolds and bobs along.

Orphaned in the Blitz, the three siblings Charlie, Paul and Carrie are evacuated. Village committee-chair-of-everything Mrs Hobday – a wonderful incarnation by Jacqui Dubois – very nearly lands them with the equally preposterous Susannah Van Den Berg as cheap farm labour. But in the nick of time, up steps Eglantine Price…

Eglantine appears a sort of rural Joanna Lumley, elegant, eccentric and astride a motor-bike. But the children are whisked into her parallel world of magic – an apprentice witch with a mission to save the free world from dark enemies. It will need heroism, dazzling wizardry and several flights on the iconic Flying Bedstead.

With brilliant technicals throughout, it all makes for a feast for eyes and ears. This is the sort of production that gives the grown-ups a night of escapist nonsense – and gives wide-eyed youngsters a dazzling, breathtaking, flooding experience of what live theatre can do.

If the show merits four stars, Dianne Pilkington adds the fifth. Pilkington brings her outstanding talent, her thrilling vocals and her assured, accomplished command of the Eglantine role. She was the ultimate Glinda in Wicked – and the Bedknobs narrative, of course, shares with that show the motifs of quest and bravery and redemption of the world. Dianne’s vocals are sensational, and her witty, knowing and beautifully timed acting raises the production ever higher.

The three children are a delight. On this night, Isabella Bucknell and Hayden Court stepped forward from the team of touring juveniles to play Carrie and Paul, and in clarity and credible portrayal they were easily up with the adults. Older brother Charlie is played by Conor O’Hara, assured and assertive – if a tad too mature for the part of a thirteen-year-old. A little question there for the casting director, perhaps.

And the other principal, Emelius Brown, is an engaging and absolutely delightful Charles Brunton. Ever so slightly understated but the perfect foil for Eglantine, Charles brings his own brand of wizardry. A fine, knowing portrayal.

Never mind the plot – although it remains a curious mix of morality tale and fantastic adventure. Saving the world always did need something less mundane and more magical. This production majors on its dazzling effects, blinding light displays, accomplished puppetry, loud and bouncy music. There are plenty of neat nods to physical theatre, with the ensemble busily swivelling the sets and conjuring motorcycles and side-cars out of bits of furniture.

Jamie Harrison’s set creates a sort of cradle for the action, with shapes of a Blitz-hit London rising tall and symbolic, like some gaunt ruins of Guernica. The effect is haunting, although it does make the actual playing space a little tight and claustrophobic. The production’s long touring schedule may, of course, take in some smaller venues but the expansive Congress stage felt under-used.

Neil Bartram’s breezy newly-written musical numbers dovetail well with the Sherman Brothers’ original score, although other than the iconic Bobbing Along, the tunes do not stay long in the memory.

But this is actually no brash, big-number musical. It is a beautiful, skilful, magical tale that will enchant the youngsters – and bring out the youngster in Mum. Dad and Grandma too.

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson