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Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten – Theatre at the Tabard

Revivals sometimes work. Think of the National’s 1994 revival of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford & Son (1912) or the Finborough’s more recent revival of Distinguished Villa (1926). Unfortunately, the Tabard’s new production of John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle is not one of those revivals. The play proceeds on the assumption that witchcraft is real and that witches can fall in love, albeit at a cost. It was written in 1948 but not staged until 1950 when Lilli Palmer appeared as Gillian Holroyd, a young witch who falls in love with a man who lives in her apartment block. The part had been rejected by Vivien Leigh who opted instead to lead in A Streetcar Named Desire (what was she thinking?!). The role was a huge success for Palmer, who played alongside her then husband, Rex Harrison and a real Siamese cat, and cast smoky and colourfully sparky spells in an ashtray, conjuring – literally – indoor fireworks. The Palmer-Harrisons even brought the production to London where it had a successful run in the West End despite competition from, of all things, The Crucible.

Beth Burrows and Edward Hayes-Neary. Photo by Charles Flint.
Beth Burrows and Edward Hayes-Neary. Photo by Charles Flint.

Back in the ‘50s, critics credited the success of Bell, Book and Candle to its cast and the cat, with one describing the play as “a mild romantic comedy in need of the salt and spices of super-acting”. And that remains a perfect summary of the challenge it presents to anyone seeking to revive it. As Gillian, Beth Burrows has the hardest task – to convince and endear as a lovestruck sorceress without the chemistry that comes with playing opposite one’s spouse and lacking a real cat or any special effects. She struggles. Everyone struggles. The strangely accented Edward Hayes-Neary is unconvincing as the romantic lead while Daniel Breakwell can do nothing but camp up his role as Gillian’s trickster brother Nicky. The one bright light is Zoë Teverson, playing Gillian’s aunt, who does her best to milk as much comedy as possible out of Van Druten’s dry and dated dialogue, amping up her character’s mischievous side rather than, as in most productions, simply presenting her as an elderly scatterbrain. Completing the cast is Richard Lynson as a dry-as-dust author of books debunking or exposing witchery.

Bell, Book and Candle is worth seeing but only as a reminder of how weak comedies were near three quarters of a century ago. The fault lies in the script not in the stars, and in this production their best efforts and those of the costume designer, Alice McNicholas, are countered by a rather old-fashioned style of direction, a sparse set and a lack of any real magic.

3 Star Review

Review by Louis Mazzini

It’s Christmas Eve in London, 1954, but young witch Gillian Holroyd’s mood is more restless than festive. She wants something different this season, perhaps in the form of her attractive new tenant, Tony Henderson. Yet he’s going to announce his engagement to her old school rival on New Year’s Eve.

Gillian could use her extraordinary magical powers to bind him with a spell, but that wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Can she win his affection without resorting to the dark arts? And what will it do to her if she succeeds?

Beth Burrows plays Gillian Holyrod
Edward Hayes-Neary plays Anthony Henderson
Zoë Teverson plays Miss Holyrod
Richard Lynson plays Sidney Redlitch
Daniel Breakwell plays Nicholas Holyrod
Mark Giesser directs

Bell Book and Candle
Theatre at the Tabard
2 Bath Road, London, W4 1LW
Thursday 16 February to Saturday 11 March 2023

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1 thought on “Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten – Theatre at the Tabard”

  1. We’ve just been to the performance “Bell,book and candle” and we thouroughly enjoyed every minute of it!
    Thank you for a lovely afternoon….
    Beate and Josef Klitsch

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