WHEN you see the name Disney above the title, and original music and lyrics come from Richard M and Robert B Sherman, the brothers responsible for the music in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a long list of Disney classics including Mary Poppins, your mind almost automatically registers a big, spectacularly staged musical.
While Michael Harrison’s production is by no means small scale in either staging or cast numbers, it relies on rather more subtle means of effectively taking us on a journey into a fantasy world than high-powered technical expertise.
The entire cast are engaged in manipulating the cleverly designed sets, quite happily remaining onstage as part of the scenery, and as replacement for the wonderful animation seen on screen, Set and Illusion director Jamie Harrison has come up with a series of full-sized puppets. Guided no doubt by choreographer and movement director Neil Bettles, these were moved and voiced in a manner that made you forget the humans behind them and believe the Lion, Bear, Scraggy Bird and bulbous comic fish were real personalities. Any actor sharing a scene with any of these will find themselves well and truly upstaged.
Between the animals, birds and fish and the presence of three cute children, the two principals on view, Dianne Pilkington as Eglantine Price, the spinster who believes that through the bogus Professor Browne’s mail order magic course she can find the means to stop conflict between nations, and Charles Brunton, as the lovable fraudulent Professor, have a battle on their hands from the word go. Both have plenty of musical opportunities, as well as the vocal ability, to help their cause, but although the Sherman Brothers and Neil Bartram (who has added some new songs), have created a score which fits the twists and turns in the story admirably, there is not a showstopper, like those to be found in Mary Poppins, that will send you out humming the tune.
The difficult role of the young teenager Charlie, the head of the three bombed-out orphans who are billeted on Miss Price, and come to share in her fantasy world, was played with a lovely delicate touch by Conor O’Hara. It is he who at the end has to unravel fantasy from fact without allowing sentimentality to overwhelm the moment.
With eight names to choose from, and no help either in the programme or from front-of-house, to discover which pair were playing the younger sister and brother, Carrie and Paul, I was left to make facial recognition from afar. I settled on Isabella Bucknell, as the beautifully seriously minded Carrie, and Dexter Barry, demonstrating, ideally that a child’s uncluttered logic can be, and frequently is superior to adult thinking.
If I have credited the wrong pair, I apologise, in the knowledge that any of the other six waiting in the wings would show the same uninhibited confidence demonstrated by the two young actors I saw.
If you would like to catch up with this production the nearest venues on the nationwide tour are the Welsh Millenium Centre in Cardiff from 1st to 5th February, and Plymouth Theatre Royal from 8th to 12th March.