Magic in the air as Bedknobs and Broomsticks soar to the Belfast stage

DANCING broomsticks, flying beds, light-up dancing fish and stunning puppets are all part of the magic of Disney’s new stage adaptation, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Based on the 1971 Disney classic, the story centers on the three Rawlins children, who are orphaned and then evacuated from London during World War II.

Sent by train to the fictional Dorset town of Pepperinge Eye, they find themselves in the reluctant care of the eccentric Miss Price, who tries to serve them worms instead of sausages.

Charlie – at 13, the eldest of the Rawlins children – decides to take charge and organize their escape. But as the trio stare out the window in search of a way out of their misery, they spy on the trainee witch, Miss Price, flying on a broomstick.

And so the magic begins as they are taken on adventures in London, under the sea and on an island of animals.

The show is coming to Belfast later this month and I was lucky enough to see the magic come to life during its recent Dublin tour.

While the Sherman Brothers’ catchy songs including A Step in the Right Direction and The Beautiful Briny are there, the ongoing war in Ukraine has added more meaning to this emotionally powerful journey of displacement, belonging and family. .

46-year-old West End actress Dianne Pilkington stars as teenage witch Eglantine Price.

“It’s always been quite an emotional piece and even more so now. It starts with air raid sirens, explosions and gas masks – the situation that many families in reality experience in Ukraine,” says Wigan-born Pilkington. , as we speak behind the scenes at the Gaiety Theater in Dublin.

“And like in the play, we now see young refugees, like Charlie, Carrie and Paul, coming to our country. Audiences often have tears in their eyes at the end of performances and even more so now.”

The role of Eglantine Price in the Disney film was originally played by Angela Lansbury, of whom Pilkington is a big fan.

“I’m obsessed with her. She’s so eccentric, eccentric, fully aware and a real all-rounder, who is good at telling a story through song.”

During our conversation, she discovers that Lansbury’s grandfather, William McIldowie, was a former manager of the Grand Opera House.

“Are you serious?” she said jumping up in her seat enthusiastically. “I can’t wait to visit the theater for the first time and now it’s even more special.”

She shocked her fellow cast members during rehearsals by showing up wearing an Angela Lansbury Murder She Wrote-style face mask.

“I bought the face mask in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic before I knew about this musical or that I would do it. The rest of the cast found it hilarious.”

Despite his admiration for Lansbury, Pilkington made the role his own.

“I based it on the icons of the 1940s, the incredibly strong women who lived through that tough time,” she says.

“Also, we’re in a different era. Although it’s still set in the 1940s, I tried to approach it from a modern perspective.”

In the adventure, Price learns sorcery through a correspondence course because she has had a vision of an enemy invasion and wants to help defeat them without loss of life.

She is missing a crucial spell, “substitutive locomotion”, which brings inanimate objects to life, and she and the children take off on the airborne bed in an attempt to find it.

Her supposed magic teacher Emelius Browne (Charles Brunton) is their first stop. Enthusiasm on and off stage is bouncing back from the Southampton actor.

Best known for his musical theater roles, as a child he appeared in the original cast of Oliver! at the London Palladium. His most recent credits include Miss Trunchbull in the West End production of Matilda The Musical and as Lumière in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which he enjoyed playing at the Grand Opera House in Belfast.

“I can’t wait to visit Belfast again and celebrate my birthday there,” says Brunton.

He had a lot of fun playing Emelius, favoring comedy over pacing, and particularly enjoyed learning his own magic tricks.

“The musical recognized the film, while updating it and adding additional songs and twists,” he tells me.

“We can see the audience reaction and as the bed flies you can hear the audience gasps. But what I love is there’s that old Victorian magic there too.”

Brunton admits he hasn’t always had the street magic with proper silks, coins and flowers on stage. “Fortunately, I’m not a very good magician, so when mistakes happen, it’s fine,” he laughs.

Helping them master the art of stage magic is co-director Jamie Harrison, who created the stage illusions in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and also worked on West End productions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Pinocchio.

“Charlie and I do the link ring trick together and the first week of rehearsals I dropped them as many times as I was on the floor having a huge meltdown,” says Pilkington, delighted to be able to now amaze his nine-year-old son, Hugo.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is one of the few films, including Mary Poppins, that mixes live action and animation.

In the stage show, talking animals come to life with spectacularly detailed puppets.

The set revels in old-school theater, but with no obvious dangling threads, it’s the technical magic of illusion that most viewers talk about afterwards.

“It’s done in a very smart way,” adds Pilkington, who while on paper didn’t think she looked like her character, admits she shares many similarities.

“We were told they were looking for someone quirky, eccentric and not child friendly as they needed to learn how to exist in a family unit. But after doing so, we quickly realized we were playing ourselves. themselves,” she laughs.

“When I watched the movie as a kid, I thought David Tomlinson was a lot like my dad in manners and that helped make the character very believable,” Brunton said.

:: Bedknobs and Broomsticks perform at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from April 27th to May 1st.