Full of fun and fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang needs no introduction, rating as it does high among the icons of musical theatre. Full credit must be accorded to this production by West Yorkshire Playhouse both for the high standard of its performers and for coping with what must be incredibly difficult logistics in staging Chitty on tour, involving as it does the transporting of some large and unwieldy objects. I will say no more on this subject for fear of giving the game away to audiences who are seeing the musical for the first time.
Based on the 1968 film adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams, despite differences between making a film and staging a musical, and the moving forward of the era in which it is set, under the direction of James Brining this Chitty has an aura of timelessness about it which spans the generations. Pure nonsense, but totally believable. At its heart is the boy meets girl romance of lonely widower Caractacus Potts, an inventor of strange machines who is struggling to bring up two young children on his own, and the delectable Truly Scrumptious. Add to the melée an aged and slightly doolally grandfather, a wicked Baron and Baroness, a spine-chilling Childcatcher and a magic car and the result is as sweet as a dolly mixture.
Lee Mead is a mop-headed Caractacus, seemingly bewildered by life but full of spunk and determination. The lyrics by the Sherman brothers are well-known, and Mead is great in the foot-tapping fun numbers such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which gives its name to the title, bringing an unexpected lump to the throat with Hushabye Mountain, which has the added poignancy of the vision of his late wife appearing to him as he sings.
Andy Hockley’s Grandpa, bushy-bearded and bandy-legged, is a delight, the Welsh actor being accorded a special round of applause on opening night in Cardiff. Hockley manages well the balancing act of adhering to the original character created by writer Roald Dahl, based on a story by James Bond Creator Ian Fleming, yet adding his own twist.
Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Truly Scrumptious eschews the frill and flounces of the film and opts instead for more modern attire such as jodhpur like trousers which have the added advantage of showing off her shapely form. You can’t fail to be charmed by this Truly. Hope Fletcher brings a warmth to the role which reveals an understanding of the importance of family life which is one of the underlying themes. Her singing is impeccable; outstanding in her solo Lovely Lonely Man reinstated in Act II after being eliminated from earlier productions of the stage show, melodic and perfectly balanced in the songs she sings with Caractacus and the Potts children.
That accomplished actress Claire Sweeney makes a comical and high-kicking Baroness Bomburst opposite Shaun Williamson’s perfectly petulant Baron. More comic talent in that pair of would-be villains Boris and Goran, played respectively by Sam Harrison and Scott Paige. Matt Gillett’s Childcatcher is sinister and suitably spine shivering, while Bill Coggins gives a movingly compassionate performance as the concerned Toymaker.
It’s not only the wonderful music and lyrics that make this show what it is, but the choreography. Stephen Mear’s choreography is a star in its own right throughout, whether it be the foot tapping intricacies of Me Ol’ Bamboo in the fairground scene or the exotic rhythms of the Bombie Samba in which Sweeney’s take is a master piece of send-up on its own. Skilful video effects and animation work in tandem with an atmospheric yet simple staging which changes or revolves seamlessly. As for the music – under the baton of musical director and keyboard player Andrew Hilton it well deserves the applause it receives.
So what of Chitty herself? Let’s not spoil the surprise. Let’s just say you won’t be disappointed.
Runs until 21st August 2016
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Wales Millennium Centre
Writer: Ian Fleming
Music & Lyrics: Richard M.Sherman and Robert B.Sherman
Director: James Brining
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels