Aren’t we due a bit of magic in our lives? Dianne Pilkington thinks so. She is staring in Bedknobs and Broomsticks which opens at the Theatre Royal Plymouth from Tuesday (08 March).
‘It is fun, it is full of magic, and it takes you on a different journey from the adventure we’ve been on for the last year and a half. It is what the world needs right now,’ says the Wigan-born actor who plays Miss Eglantine Price, the trainee witch.
The show is the first ever stage adaptation of the 1971 Disney classic. Dianne says the production is every bit as ground-breaking as the film, with its famous blend of live action, animation and musical numbers.
‘The film was doing something new and innovative, and so are we,’ says the West End star, whose roles include Glinda in Wicked, Donna in Mamma Mia! and Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein.
‘It is 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 World War Two, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is about the three Rawlins children who have been evacuated from London.
They find themselves in the fictional Dorset town of Pepperinge Eye where they are in the care of the eccentric Miss Price – who is less interested in looking after them and is more concerned with completing her studies in magic.
Before they know it, she is casting spells on their bed and sending them skywards on a magical adventure!
‘She’s very quirky,’ laughs Dianne. ‘She’s a woman who has lived on her own for a long time and has not had much love for a really long time.’
‘We’ve been exploring the scary side but there has to be a joy in her too. There’s a real relish in being an apprentice witch.’
Long before she got the part, Pilkington was an admirer of Angela Lansbury who immortalised the role of Eglantine Price on film. She’d even got the merchandise.
‘One of the first masks I bought at the beginning of the pandemic was Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote,’ she says. ‘The rest of the cast think it’s hilarious, but I didn’t buy it for this – it’s just mine!’
She is, though, determined to make the part her own:
‘I’m a huge fan of hers but I’m not like her at all. Also, we’re in a different time. I’ve tried to come it at it from a modern point of view, even though it’s still set in wartime.’
When she wants to check she’s on the right lines, Dianne has the perfect audience on hand. Her sounding board is her eight-year-old son.
‘I’ve been practising on Hugo,’ she says. ‘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 by The Sherman Brothers which were dropped from the film, plus new material by Neil Bartram who has worked closely with Brian Hill on the stage adaptation.
With the additional songs, it has become a full-blown musical.
‘Substitutiary Locomotion is one of the best numbers I’ve ever sung,’ says Dianne. ‘I get so excited. I actually do believe I’m magic and casting a spell. When you’re in the middle of that on stage it’s fabulous.’
Bringing her up to speed on the art of magic is co-director Jamie Harrison. He is the man who created the stage illusions in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and once had to perform a magic trick for JK Rowling herself.
He has also worked on Charlie on the Chocolate Factory in the West End and Pinocchio at the National Theatre, as well as all the shows for Vox Motus, the Glasgow company he runs with the other co-director, Candice Edmunds.
‘At the core of Harry Potter is the human being,’ says Jamie. ‘What I learnt was that magic really works if it’s part of the personality of the character who is 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.’
‘Using fantasy to bring respite from trauma is really timely,’ explains Candice Edmunds who says the fantasy emerges from the stress of the poor children who were evacuated during the war.
‘It feels more than ever we want something to lift us out of our situation. The children are in the depths of a traumatic upheaval and fantasy helps to offer relief from all 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 grew up in Australia and South Africa before moving to Glasgow. Looking back, she can’t quite believe she has had the chance to direct a show that played such 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,’ she says.
‘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.’
It’s a central premise which made Dianne more determined than ever to get the part.
‘When I first read the script, I bawled my eyes out for the last ten minutes to the point when my husband was quite worried,’ she says. ‘What they’ve done with the story is incredibly moving.’
The staging of Bednobs and Broomsticks follows the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s recent announcement for shows which are on sale for 2022 and 2023.
It’s set to host a stunning line up of performances, including: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Coppélia, Othello, Welsh National Opera La bohème, Welsh National Opera The Makropulos Affair, Welsh National Opera Migrations, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake, The Mousetrap, Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Welsh National Opera’s The Magic Flute.
Images supplied courtesy of Theatre Royal Plymouth. Photography credit: Johan Persson.