WHO NEEDS PANTO? A CLASSY FLIGHT OF FANCY ON THE ROAD
This show, which I had the joy of seeing in a packed Theatre Royal Norwich alongside many small thrilled children, knows exactly how to get their attention first thing. A homely bedroom in a neat central window blows apart with a deafening bomb-blast , into a big frame of ragged bricky ruins. It leaves three children orphaned, rattled around on evacuation trains and dumped in a sinister civic museum awaiting their temporary home. Candice Edmunds’ direction offers a bravura start, well-served by Jamie Harrison’s artfully tour-able design and the additional thrill of a real band tuning up in the orchestra pit beforehand (some of the kids leaning over excitedly before the start, realizing this was real not a movie).
Its pedigree is interesting: in the 1940s, before she wrote the more famous Borrowers series, Mary Norton wrote two novels about three children and the prim witch next door. Eglantine Price enchants a bedknob, so that the brass bed could fly them either anywhere they want – if it is twisted one way – or to any period they chose if twisted the other way. Wild adventures follow, including a journey to rescue Emelius, a medieval necromancer accused of witchcraft. I grew up on the book and can recommend it. The 1971 Disney musical film which took it over (with music by the Shermans) removed the time-travel entirely, made the children world war 2 evacuees and gave the witch Miss Price a mission to defeat a German invasion.
Fair enough, and it wouldn’t be a Disney production without big wild dances (“Portobello Road” especially good), an undersea ballet of luminous fish, and a rom-com relationship developing between the witch and Emelius (this time a failing magician with a joke shop). But how, given the magic, will it work onstage?
The answer is, “brilliantly!”. Adults looking for something that isn’t pure panto this winter, and don’t fancy the high costs and weird plot of Frozen, are in luck. Dianne Pilkington is a spirited witch, posh and intimidating at first to the children (here reimagined as Cockney sparrers) but she has real emotional subtlety and deftly delightful physicality as she struggles with her first recalcitrant broomstick. And yes it takes off, magnificently, even able to transport her apparently through a window-frame. The bed flies too, again unaccountably against an artfully dark background. There is some classy close-up magic in the tropical island scene, from both Pilkington and Charles Brunton’s Emelius, and the museum exhibits of armour and weaponry are impressively magicked into defeating the helmeted Huns.
But one of the great things about good children’s theatre is showing just enough of the workings, the sleight of hand and potentially home-made kit, to send them home determined to make their own play. We need that more than ever, as school drama erodes away or turns into therapeutic wokery. So here there is puppetry (two characters turned into nice rabbits, and some wonderful animal characters on the island led by a speechifying pompous lion who made me suddenly remember the party conference season was on). While swords fly magically through the air and shoes move on their own in the battle scene there are still moments of actorly deftness half-fooling us at the same time, and a substantial, nimble ensemble make everything happen fast.
And there is real emotion too. I thought Disneyfication would remove Mary Norton’s edge of postwar melancholy, but the last scenes become, for a while, properly tear-jerking as the kids accept that none of it happened outside their imagination, the parents are still dead, and they are three orphans alone in a strange and baffling place. The little girls in the row in front of me stiffened, fretful. But reality came good: broomsticks and magical bedknobs are fine in their way, but adult kindness beats all. The kids recognized that too.
box office bednobsonstage.com
Touring to 1 May 2022. Next up Nottingham, Eastbourne
( in Christmas season Leeds , Southampton and Edinburgh get it!)