Writer: John van Druten
Director: Mark Giesser
The Public Reviews Rating:
It’s Christmas time: as the audience enters, Judy Garland’s chestnuts are roasting on an open stereo, and to spice up the season New York socialite Gillian Holroyd has designs on the handsome publisher upstairs who’s dating her college rival.
But Gillian has womanly wiles she didn’t learn at Wellesley, and John van Druten’s airy comedy spins on the use of witchcraft to ensure she gets her man. Bell Book and Candle is the play (and 1958 Kim Novak/James Stewart movie) which allegedly inspired the TV comedy ‘Bewitched’ and you can see the beginnings of the relationship between witch Samantha and mortal Darren. You might also wonder if a young J K Rowling didn’t also catch the often-repeated movie on TV because there are just as many similarities with the Harry Potter oeuvre, showing the world of urban witchcraft as a natural parallel to the ‘Muggle’ one.
She’s aided and abetted by her feline ‘familiar’, Pyewacket which ought to be a svelte Siamese but here he’s more of a rude mechanical: a ginger-and-white battery operated cross between magical Mr Mistoffelees and Mrs Slocombe’s recalcitrant pussy.
Zoë Teverson gives good witch in a performance which is by turns knowing and vulnerable: she has a distinctive voice evocative of Kim Novak, but also of Maggie Gyllenhaal and she wears some gorgeous 50s vintage selected by costume designer Guilia Scrimieri. Teverson plays it in a upper class British intonation in contrast to Stephen Cavanagh‘s excellent and authentic Ivy-League boyish publisher whose range of stage emotions really is only a couple of inches short of a James Stewart himself.
There’s strong support from Duncan MacInnes as Gil’s perky and impulsive brother Nicky, and from John Shears as shambling boozy author Sidney Redlitch whose inquisitiveness about witchcraft throws the second act into amusing panic, but Carole Street disappoints in the important role of Aunt Queenie. She’s too housewifely and would benefit from the glamorous hauteur and disdain for mere mortals of the Endora character in ‘Bewitched’, nor does she capture Elsa Lanchester’s wide-eyed ‘who, me’ defensiveness when challenged for her naughtier spell-casting.
It’s an interesting revival, author John van Druten was a closet homosexual and there’s a suggestion that the piece is a coded reference to the gay underworld of fifties’ New York. Mark Giesser directs at a fine pace, and whilst the production values are mixed (interesting wall-paintings which glow like Tarot cards in the dark, but no pyrotechnics for the magic and a distractingly weird cardboard concertina sofa) this is a very entertaining production of a vintage script which is just as funny in the post-Potter era.
written for www.thepublicreviews.com and published 18 November 2011