Theatre reviews: Bedknobs and Broomsticks | The Dock Brief

Two very different productions share a powerful sense of nostalgia, writes Joyce McMillan

Dianne Pilkington in Bedknobs and Broomsticks PIC: Johan Persson
Dianne Pilkington in Bedknobs and Broomsticks PIC: Johan Persson

The Dock Brief, Lanternhouse, Cumbernauld ****

Bedknobs and Broomsticks, King’s Theatre, Glasgow ****

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Ever since Rapture Theatre was founded more than 20 years ago, its mission has been to bring well made plays, well presented, to audiences across Scotland.

And its despite the tragic death earlier this year of the company’s founder and co-artistic director Michael Emans, at the age of only 50, Rapture’s work continues in fine style with this lunchtime touring production by Emans’s partner and joint artistic director Lyn McAndrew of John Mortimer’s 1958 stage play for two actors, The Dock Brief, based on a radio drama.

Set in a prison cell in London, the play features two extended conversations between the prisoner Fowle, who has confessed to killing his wife and seems likely to hang for his crime, and the ageing barrister Morgenhall, a disappointed man with a failing career who has somehow been picked, in the morning line-up at the Old Bailey, to represent Fowle.

Through some fairly hilarious role play, Morgenhall and Fowle act out several possible defences that Fowle might mount; but the underlying theme of the play has to do with class, status and expectations.

Fowle – exquisitely played here by Welsh actor Glyn Pritchard – is a humble, quiet and apparently kindly man who admits that he has done a terrible thing; whereas Morgenhall, for all his disappointments, is a bit of a monster of entitlement and self-absorption, frequently convinced that the whole business is more upsetting for him than it is for Fowle.

John Bett captures this self-pitying quality in Morgenhall perfectly, and often with a Boris Johnson-style rhetorical flourish, featuring Latin quotes, that seems oddly familiar.

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And if the play has an old-fashioned quality, and a thoroughly implausible ending, it still offers a quiet comic insight into the ruthless power-games of the British establishment, and the emotional damage they cause, that remains sadly relevant today.

There’s an even more powerful sense of nostalgia about the latest touring production of Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which is set during the Second World War, and has a similar tone to Mary Poppins, in the sense of idealised early 20th-century Englishness that pervades the songs, written in both cases by the Sherman Brothers of New York, although this show boasts additional numbers by Neil Bartram. This production is directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison of the Glasgow-based company Vox Motus; and the effect is both spectacular enough to thrill, and also beguilingly frank about the mechanics of stage magic, in a richly hand-knitted style that perfectly fits the story.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the tale of three orphaned children, bombed out of their London home, who find refuge in a village with the eccentric Miss Eglantine Price, who is training to be a witch in the hope of acquiring enough power to repel dangerous invaders.

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In no time, all four are travelling the world on a magic bedstead in search of vital spells, picking up a failed magician called Emelius Brown along the way; and the 16-strong ensemble company work unflaggingly to deliver fine song and dance, in scenes that range from Portobello Road Market to the bottom of the deep blue sea.

Holby City star Dianne Pilkington makes a gorgeous Eglantine Price with a beautiful voice, and Conor O’Hara is brilliantly troubled and intense as the elder boy, Charlie, who eventually has the tough job of distinguishing dreams from reality. And if that moment comes too late to redeem the show from its fairly rose-coloured view of a wartime British past, it still radiates heart-warming quantities of charm and entertainment value, from start to finish.

The Dock Brief on tour until 21 November, to Peebles, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Inverness and East Kilbride. Bedknobs and Broomsticks at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 17-21 November, and the Playhouse, Edinburgh, 19-23 January.

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