It’s hard to know what to say about a show as close to perfect as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the current revival touring the UK does it a great justice. So rich in music, characters and plot there is a lot to have fun with and from cast to design all the stops have been pulled out. It would be interesting to find out how many of the children watching this revival have seen the 1968 film, whose magic the stage production is likely to draw nostalgia for in most adults. But either way, the stage show firmly holds its own, bringing the fantastical story to life right in front of you.
Playing a part that in many audience members’ hearts, belongs to the musical god that is Dick Van Dyke, is a serious challenge. But comedian-gone-opera singer Jason Manford does a wonderful job at Caractacus Potts, the ‘lovely lonely man’ and model father. If you are used to seeing Manford telling jokes on Live at The Apollo you will be stunned to hear his unbelievable voice which may bring a tear during Hushbye Mountain. The rest of the leads are all excellent to watch in particular the two lead children, Jemima and Jeremey, who are considerably less sickly sweet than in the movie. Instead, they have just the right touch of cheeky defiance. This comes through particularly in certain spots such as during ‘Truly Scrumptious’, which is played in a wonderfully presumptuous manner, the children dragging Truly about the stage. It certainly appeals to a more modern view of children where we accept that they are not little angels, and probably prefer that. The other children in the cast are local and although their performances are nowhere near as polished as the main two they do a fantastic job and are truly heartwarming. One also has to mention the Childcatcher, the ultimate musical bad guy reigning over Vulgaria under the Baroness’ wishes and capturing children in a cage as he pretends to give out sweets. Jos Vantyler’s characterisation is incredible, his voice and movements as perfectly chilling as his huge black net.
Designer Simon Higlett’s lavish set is breathtaking and expansive. There is a giant windmill that serves as the Potts’ family home whose huge sails actually rotate. It would have been great to have had a little more done with the breakfast making machine, but generally, the inside of the family’s home is enchanting. The garage, sweet factory, Baron and Baroness’ and the sewer all have their own sets. Another stand out element of the revival is the abundant use of projection, which is some of the most effective I’ve seen in a stage production. When the children were falling asleep to Hushabye Mountain, monochrome projections of sailboats added to the already dreamlike magic of the beautiful lyrics, orchestration and Manford’s voice. Also as Chitty would drive along, the road whizzing by was projected onto the back wall. The classic moment when Chitty takes to the air (with the help of some serious mechanics) was also massively aided by projection and no child or adult in the audience could possibly hold back a look of awe or an elated grin as the cliff drops away behind the car, its iconic red and yellow wings outstretched.
The costume is also expansive with the hilarious Vulgarian spy duo changing disguises more times than you could count and the sewer children’s rags perfectly heart-breaking. The design works seamlessly with the performances, one of the highlights being the large choreographed scene in Scrumptious’ sweet factory, which has apron clad factory workers spinning around with delicious looking trollies and trays of candy.
Something one notices when watching the musical as an adult is how many different morals the story is putting across for children in the audience. From family values in ‘You Two’, the idea of learning from your mistakes in ‘Roses of Success’ and the obvious message of ‘Teamwork’, the songs are brimming with lessons. And then there’s the added fact that the car responds to the word please. But it is not as though any of these messages are remotely outdated so the musical remains both fun and wholesome for a younger audience. If you can catch this at the Festival Theatre this month, with or without an accompanying minor, then you will not be disappointed… and if you can’t you should chase it up at another stop on its tour!