It is easy to make the mistake that London is the place in the UK where one has to be in order to see world class productions of musicals. Certainly, one can see world class productions of musicals in London but they are available elsewhere in the country. On the evening that Daniel Evans’ superlative Showboat closed in Sheffield, another glorious, equally superlative, revival was continuing to play to packed houses in Leeds prior to a year-long UK tour.
James Brining’s production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the first new production of that musical since Adrian Noble’s original in 2002, is a joyful and exuberant affair, chock full of gags and goggles. In keeping with the racing car that is the main character, the production utilises Formula One techniques: shiny, sleek design, first class operators in all key positions, a cracking pace and Stephen Mear’s bustling, brilliant choreography as high-powered energising fuel.
This is as good a musical ride as one might hope to enjoy, and as soon as you hit the final check-point, you just want to go back and take the track again. Small folk all around were entranced – giggling, frightened by the Childcatcher, ecstatic that Chitty could fly, bopping and clapping along to simple, effective tunes. The adults in their care were similarly engaged, many singing along with familiar tunes or even calling out as if this was a Pantomime.
Still others were amused by the satirical undertones. The stage adaptation is by Jeremy Sams, itself an adaptation of Ray Roderick’s adaptation of the successful 1968 film which was also an adaptation – from the pens of Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes – based upon Ian
Fleming’s sole children’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Fleming’s basic tale, augmented by Dahl and Hughes’ modifications in significant ways, is fruity and silly, and ultimately heart-warming.
There are many riffs on the kind of James Bond notions which pervade Fleming’s more well-known writing. A central, heroic loner, good with gadgets and agile at extemporising (albeit this loner has two children he adores); spies of questionable ability; a powerful enigmatic woman with a silly name who becomes a love interest for the loner; a powerful, slightly absurd, but practically dangerous villain, with a penchant for Teddy Bears rather than cats; a secondary but ultimately more disturbing villain; and a wily gadget-maker who sides with the loner. Caractacus Potts, Boris and Goran, Truly Scrumptious, Baron Bomburst, The Childcatcher and The Toymaker: each is a cartoonish, child-friendly doppelganger for standard Bond characters.
The fictional land of Vulgaria provides another level of satire. How did this peculiar Baron seize power? How does he retain it given oppressive and unpardonable decrees such as that which requires all children to be ripped from their homes and kept in dark confinement – simply because the Baroness doesn’t like children? Why did the families of the children let the unthinkable happen to their children? It might be jolly fun, but there is an underside to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which provides a salutary reminder of the oppression and hatred fostered by the Hitler regime.
Simon Higlett’s impressive costume designs play into this background – the formal uniforms of the Vulgarian establishment are unsubtle references to Nazi attire. They provide delicious, electric purple, icing to the satirical cake. Boris and Goran’s various outfits are sensational, with special mention for the titter-inducing camouflage suits and wetsuits! So many touches were exceptional – the bizarre, twisted outfit for the Childcatcher and the Baroness’ exotic silk pyjamas being stand-outs.
The scenic design was just as impressive, wonderfully story book in its general approach, and Higlett utilised Simon Wainwright’s clever video work fantastically well. The sense of Chitty outwitting her foes, whether in hovercraft mode or flying-car mode, was splendidly evoked and although the car did not soar above the heads of the audience, it frolicked in the air sufficiently well to mesmerise the young’uns and bring back fond memories for the not-quite-so-young’uns. Well placed stage fog added to the sense of excitement, and the sequence where Chitty is chased by the Baron’s sea-forces was especially well done.
Between them Andrew Hilton and Stephen Ridley (Music Director and Music Supervisor respectively) ensure that the score is given fastidious and exemplary attention. Music and lyrics are by the Sherman brothers (Richard M and Robert B) who were so key to many a Disney film musical success and this score contains echoes and glimpses of their standard style. Hearing one of their songs generally makes persons of a certain age remember what it was like to be ten and the experience is no different here.
They may be bubblegum tunes, but they have an uncompromising joy about them whether in silly patter mode (the title song), gorgeous lullaby mode (Hushabye Mountain) or the big, show-stopping ensemble pieces (Me Ol’ Bamboo, The Bombie Samba). Happily tonality and diction is at a premium throughout, so the melodies and harmonies are beautifully sung and every word is properly enunciated. The cast here exemplify the correct approach to musical theatre: the words and music are vitally important and are given first class treatment.
But it is the other special ingredient in this production which really sets it apart and lets it assume Grand Prix status: Stephen Mears’ superlative dance routines and stage movement. The Bombie Samba is a phenomenal show-stopper, the kind of glorious 11 o’clock number every show wishes it had, but few really do. It is endlessly inventive, genuinely funny and sexy to boot. A complete triumph. Me Ol’Bamboo is similarly delightful and energised and every time the pulse of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is unleashed, Mear finds new, infectious ways to beat that drum.
Comedy numbers can be overwhelmed by the big set-pieces involving the whole ensemble, but not here. Both Act English and Chu-Chi Face are fresh, zesty and rousing. The movement devised for the Childcatcher chills the blood just as the ditzy antics in The Roses of Success tug at the funny bone. The dynamic of dance and movement throughout is as exhilarating and potent as Chitty’s manoeuvres to escape capture and just as critical to the overall success of the production.
Perhaps Brining’s best decision here concerns the casting which is practically perfect in every way. Henry Kent and Caitlin Surtees were terrific as Jeremy and Jemima, the two children Potts holds dear. Sprightly and amiable, both were believable and enjoyable, rough where they needed to be rough, golden where they needed to shine.
Dick Van Dyke, who played Potts in the film, had a quality very few leading men have: ordinariness. In every way, Van Dyke was the archetypal Everyman: his skill was in being plain, simple, and comprehensible. He was not a “star”; he just was. Jon Robyns has a similar style and appeal and thus his Potts is exactly right. While he sings, acts and dances with all the presence, energy, commitment and skill that might be expected, Robyns does not bring a personality or “star” presence to the role. He excels at making Potts an everyday sort of fellow, one whose heart is sealed up to all but his children until Chitty’s magic allows him to see the possibilities life has on offer. It is a very fine and committed performance from Robyns who is unafraid to be slightly unlikeable in some aspects of the role, as ordinary people are wont to be. When Truly melts his heart, the fact that Robyns’ Potts is such a normal man and father (albeit one with an extraordinary father and car) makes the thawing all the more charming. His Hushabye Mountain is as endearing as his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is infectious.
Amy Griffiths is, well, truly scrumptious as Truly Scrumptious. Carrying an air of feminism and evangelism with her, Griffiths is thoroughly engaging. She starts off slightly snobbish and judgmental, but learns quickly and embraces the sheer fun and love that Jeremy and Jemima introduce to her life. She handles the singing effortlessly and manages to rise above the particularly naff lyrics in Truly Scrumptious. Her most beautiful work comes in the poignant Lovely Lonely Man, with her duet with Robyns, Doll on a Music Box, a close second.
Stephen Matthews is exceptional as the awful, nightmarish Childcatcher. Perfectly establishing the sense of the character’s lust for his work, Matthews embodies notions of persistence and fiendish resolve expertly, creating a sour, slippery and shiver-inducing villain. Like an animated black and white liquorice square, this Childcatcher has surface appeal, but an unexpected, acrid centre. His balletic movements provide a great counter-point to his kidnapping ways and a gentle nod to Robert Helpmann’s film portrayal.
There are goodies as well as baddies here; indeed, there are some very good baddies too. Andy Hockley is an endearing and delightfully eccentric Grandpa Potts. You certainly see from where his grandchildren get their inquisitive natures. As the Toymaker, but also as Coggins, Ewen Cummins is reliably quirky; he is especially good at putting the Q into the Toymaker, and evoking a sense of magical promise to secure the rescue of the Vulgarian children.
Comedy duos are difficult acts to pull off, villainous comedy duos even more so. Inept villainous comedy duos – well, pulling that off takes rare and exceptional skill. But Sam Harrison and Scott Paige have the requisite skill, in spades, and, more than that, both completely trusts and works with the other to create a brilliant comedic team that is dynamic and hilarious. They are the best worst spies going and one of the best, completely harmonious comic partnerships seen on an English stage. With faultless timing, splendid singing, athletic dancing, and an entrance in wetsuits which will stay with you long after you leave the theatre, Harrison and Paige put the terrific into teamwork.
You would think that a show with one comic duo would consider itself blessed – but, no, this one adds another duo, and a comic villainous one at that. But the Baron and Baroness Bomhurst are a duo of a very different kind. They play off each other in a different, but delightful, way; Boris and Goran can’t function alone; the Baron and Baroness can – but they don’t need to in order to succeed. The parts are separate but complimentary; they can work in unison or in a way that sees each unique but with a common purpose.
At first, it is easy to think that Don Gallagher and Tamsin Carroll do not work as well together as Harrison and Paige. But this is to misconceive their roles. Both are separate, independent creatures who work marvellously together. They are not a duo so much as a pair – just as a Diamond Ace and a Spade Ace can be a pair – fundamentally different, but linked through rank. And looked at this way, Gallagher and Carroll sizzle in combined congress.
Gallagher is a kind of downy soft toy Goldfinger – what he does is evil, but he does it for cuddly reasons. As a spoilt, lugubrious tyrant, he is a perfect marshmallow. You like him, but prefer him roasted: the cuddly despot you love to hate; well, dislike really. His Baron is so needy, so childish, so completely dominated, he is hard to dislike. Soon to play Jafar in Aladdin on the West End, Gallagher is here in full coochy-smoochy mode; part delicious, part devilish – wholly unique. If Colonel Klink was in a musical, this would be he.
Providing the tart contrast to Gallagher’s meringue, with siren red movie star hair and fishnet stockings enclosing legs blessed by perfection, Tamsin Carroll is a shatteringly sensuous and conniving Baroness, with more than a hint of Marlene Dietrich in her shadow. She puts the Bang Bang into this particular Chitty Chitty. Whether it is recoiling and gagging at the very mention of the C-word (Children, in case you are confused) or dancing a samba with waltz-and-tarantella precision, Carroll misses nothing – this is an astounding, textured and multi-layered performance of riveting skill. Oh, and she can sing supremely well too. And she is gloriously, garishly funny. In full flight in the show-stealing The Bombie Samba, with the finely toned, tightly dressed pseudo-bullfighter-bolero ensemble expertly following her smoky, insinuating lead, Carroll is an unqualified sensation.
The hard-working, good looking and nimble ensemble do terrific work throughout. This is not a musical where the ensemble is mostly off-stage; here, they work very hard and master a number of different dance styles and routines, while always giving full measure to the lyrics and score. All perform hard and well, but there is exceptional drive and commitment from Ewan Gillies, Joanna Goodwin, Alex Louize Bird, Matt Gillett and Rosanna Bates.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang looks and sounds like a work solely for children, but as this production so ably demonstrates, it is much more than that. Fuelled by Stephen Mear’s impressive footwork (such good torque!) and the seamless precision of a talented, well-oiled cast, this production is a turbo-charged triumph. A fantasmagorical frolic centred on a fine four-fendered friend – irresistible in every way.