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Half a century after its release, Disney’s kids’ film, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, has been adapted for the stage, with the new show visiting Birmingham next month.
What’s On caught up with the production as it prepared to head for the region...
After the last 18 months, aren’t we all due a little bit of magic in our lives? Actor Dianne Pilkington certainly thinks so. Dianne - whose musical-theatre credits include playing Glinda in Wicked, Donna in Mamma Mia! and Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein - is now starring in the brand-new stage production of Bedknobs And Broomsticks, which is visiting the Midlands next month.
"It's my first theatre job after the pandemic," says Wigan-born Dianne, who plays trainee witch Miss Eglantine Price in the show. "It’s fun, it’s full of magic, and it’s absolutely what the world needs right now!"
The production, which will be stopping off at The Alexandra in Birmingham, is the first-ever stage adaptation of the 1971 Disney favourite. And according to Dianne, the theatrical version is every bit as ground-breaking as the movie, with its famous blend of live action, animation and musical numbers: “The film was doing something new and innovative, and so are we. It’s faithful to what people love about Bedknobs And Broomsticks, but this creative team never make the obvious choice. They have an amazing creative brain."
Set in the darkest days of the Second World War, Bedknobs And Broomsticks tells the story of the Rawlins siblings, three children who’ve been evacuated from London. Finding themselves in the fictional Dorset town of Pepperinge Eye, they are put in the care of the eccentric Miss Price - a woman who’s far more interested in completing her studies in magic than in taking care of a trio of young evacuees. Before the children know it, she’s casting spells on their bed and sending them skywards on a magical adventure...
"She's very quirky," says Dianne. "She's a woman who’s lived on her own for a long time and who hasn’t had much in the way of love for a very long time. We've been exploring the scary side, but there’s a real joy in her too; a real excitement about being an apprentice witch.”
Even before she got the part, Dianne was a big admirer of Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury, who immortalised the role of Miss Price on film 50 years ago: "I'm a huge fan of hers, but I'm not like her at all. Also, we're in a different time now. I've tried to come at it from a modern point of view, even though the story is still set in wartime.”
Whenever she wants to check she's on the right lines with the character of Miss Price, Dianne has the perfect audience on hand - her eight-year-old son. "I've been practising on Hugo. I've shown him my magic tricks and he doesn't know how they're done, which is gratifying. He's convinced the broom is on rocket boosters! And he could be right - who will ever know?"
As well as the original score, the show features songs that were dropped from the film and a number of new compositions.
"Substitutiary Locomotion is one of the best numbers I've ever sung," says Dianne. "I get so excited that I actually end up believing I'm magic as I’m casting a spell!"
Bringing her up to speed on the art of magic is co-director Jamie Harrison. Jamie created the stage illusions in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. On one occasion he even had to perform a magic trick for JK Rowling herself. Jamie has also worked on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory in the West End and Pinocchio at the National Theatre, as well as on all the shows produced by Vox Motus, the Glasgow company he runs with co-director Candice Edmunds.
"At the core of Harry Potter is the human being," says Jamie. "What I learnt on The Cursed Child was that magic works if it's part of the personality of the character who’s performing it. That's something we're working with in Bedknobs And Broomsticks. We wanted it to feel charming, with a sense of childhood imagination, but at the same time be allowed to take flight."
For Candice Edmunds, the show’s fantasy element emerges from the stress felt by the evacuated children: "Using fantasy to bring respite from trauma is really timely. It feels more than ever that we want something to lift us out of our situation. The children are in the depths of a traumatic upheaval; fantasy offers some relief from the dark forces closing in around them. It's very cleverly written to show the way a small child would imagine solutions to problems."
Candice, who grew up in Australia and South Africa before moving to Glasgow, can't believe that she has the chance to direct a story which played a formative role in her childhood: "When I was about eight, we spent some time in a small town called Maun in Botswana, where my aunt lives. There wasn't much to do there except raid her VHS collection. Pretty much the only kids' film she had was Bedknobs And Broomsticks. My sister and I watched it over and over again - it has a really special place in my heart."
In making the switch to the stage, Bedknobs And Broomsticks has become what Jamie calls "an emotionally powerful journey about belonging, commitment and family". That shift in emphasis was one of the main attractions for Dianne Pilkington: "When I first read the script, I bawled my eyes out for the last 10 minutes, to the point where my husband was quite worried," she says. "What they’ve done with the story really is incredibly moving."
Bedknobs And Broomsticks shows at The Alexandra, Birmingham, from Wednesday 10 to Saturday 14 November, and then at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre next spring, from Tuesday 5 to Saturday 9 April
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