Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
There’s no doubt about it: director Candice Edmunds has created something wonderful here. From the first moment, it’s clear we’re in for a spectacle, and the extended opening sequence is an absolute triumph. It’s 1940. A cosy, intimate family scene is devastated by a bomb. The walls come tumbling down, the parents disappear, and three children stand wide-eyed in the chaos of an air-raid. They’re hustled out of London and onto a train. Not a word is spoken. The storm clouds – held aloft on sticks – are two-dimensional cutouts; ditto the train. It’s cheeky and inventive, exactly the sort of unabashed theatricality I adore.
It’s a good job Edmunds is so skilled, because the story – based on the 1971 Disney movie and Mary Norton’s earlier novels – is horribly muddled, a hybrid of whimsy and threat that doesn’t quite work. It always was. Even as a child, I didn’t like Norton’s The Magic Bedknob or Bonfires and Broomsticks. They have neither the light-hearted charm of Mary Poppins nor the gravitas of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
The three orphaned children are Charlie (Conor O’Hara), Carrie (Izabella Bucknell) and Paul (Aidan Oti). They’re evacuated to the remote Dorset village of Pepperinge Eye, where they’re taken in by the mysterious Eglantine Price (Dianne Pilkington). At first mistrustful, their fears are soon assuaged, despite the fact that their newly appointed guardian is an apprentice witch. Because she’s not just any witch, but a witch with a mission: Miss Price is going to stop the Battle of Britain.
Sadly, the writing isn’t strong enough to carry off this coup de théâtre: lurching from a fanciful undersea dance to a terrifying armed encounter just feels odd and unsettling. The historical backdrop to the tale is largely accurate, and then – for no real reason – not. The ending is unnecessarily convoluted. And, The Beautiful Briny aside, the music isn’t the Sherman brothers’ best work either.
Nevertheless, this musical production is beautifully staged and performed – and, viewed as a collection of set pieces, it’s literally fantastic. Kudos to Jamie Harrison, the set and illusion designer: there are so many clever tricks here, and I can’t fathom out how all of them are done. Pilkington is well-cast in the main role, and Charles Brunton’s Emelius Brown exudes loveable ineptitude. Jacqui DuBois’ postmistress/museum curator Mrs Hobday is very funny too.
I love the ensemble work. The puppetry is delightful, and the choreography vibrant and enchanting.
This is a first-rate piece of theatre, too good for a second-rate tale.