Chitty hits the ground running

~ Evening Standard - 17/04/02 by Nicholas de Jongh ~

The epic musical is beautifully calculated to enthrall the young with its fairytale weirdness and offer adults the seductive chance of a second-childhood in its amusing company. The 1968 film, which Jeremy Sams has cleverly adapted for the stage and was in turn taken from Ian Fleming's original story, looks pallid in comparison.

The first act's climax, for example, when the fantastic gold and silver car grows water- wings, rises into the starry skies and glides above the front stalls, to the accompaniment of that catchy, music-hall song Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, achieves a more thrilling impact than anything contrived on the film version. Adrian Noble's production, with its dazzle of swift scenic transformations and its witty choreographic turns in Lord Scrumptious's imposing sweet factory, plays it straight and serious when necessary. Yet it steers a clear line in camp, high and low, for the benefit of adults. Tongues are kept firmly in cheeks when not required to sing.

Fleming's fairy-tale, for which Richard M and Robert Sherman supplied those appealing, mock-Edwardian songs, has no deep, Grimm-like significances. But it offers an exciting trip by flying car to fantasy-land, to the sinister realm of Vulgaria, a low camp world. There Richard O'Brien's bald, gruesome Child Catcher seeks out stray kids and imprisons them.

"I can smell children," he insists manfully. For Nichola McAuliffe's hilarious, infant-loathing Baroness in a tiara, with finger nails like talons, has to be spared the sight of them. Designer Anthony Ward makes the world of Michael Ball's Caractacus a feast of delightfully absurd contraptions in the style of Rowland Emmet and Ronald Searle: a haircutting machine resembles a teapot with scissors attached to it. But Vulgaria, with its red and black flags and matching soldiers has a disconcerting whiff of Nazi Germany about it.

The musical's finest comic songs, Toot Sweets, an anthem in praise of musical candy, Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang and Me Ol' Bamboo, pay appealing, nostalgic homage to vanished musical styles, to Edwardian music-hall, to Busby Berkeley, to the Crazy Gang. Dynamically dancing chorus boys and girls in the factory who hold their "toot sweets" or cornets are organised to look seriously absurd in Gillian Lynne's exuberant choreography. This pleasurable sense of absurdity vanishes in the second act. Brian Blessed as a tyrannical Baron who's imprisoned Caractacus's father (Anton Rodgers) blusters threateningly around with a teddy-bear and a feeble German accent. His crude, farcical style is not much fun.

Yet Noble maintains a terrific, dramatic momentum right to the table-turning finale. Michael Ball's powerfully sung, soulful Caractacus is outmatched in terms of vitality by Harry Smith and Lauren Morgan, a brilliant pair of stage naturals, as his victimised children. And Emma Williams's Miss Truly Scrumptious, who ends up in love with Caractacus, is far too much the winsome little girl. Yet these limitations matter little. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang proves itself an ageless pleasure and a pleasure for all ages.

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