Guardian - 18/04/02
by Mike Billington ~
It seems everyone is currently turning popular movies into stage musicals. But unlike The Full Monty, this Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is in almost every respect superior to the original. Adrian Noble's exhilarating production seems to release the Dionysiac music-hall spirit and inventive magic that were only fitfully realised in the Ken Hughes film.
For a start, Jeremy Sams's witty adaptation makes much more sense of the story. Gone is the film's split between a quasi-realistic first half and a fantastic second half. Sams's version is based on the premise that the mittel-European Vulgarians are out from the start to capture the magic car that, in its wrecked form, has fallen into the hands of a penurious inventor called Potts.
This gives Sams the chance to build up the comic characters of the Vulgarian spies; it also allows him to escape the film's Edwardian starchiness and turn the heroine, Truly Scrumptious, into a jokey figure who has sisters called Madly and Deeply. "Seriously?" someone asks her. "No," she replies, "that's my brother."
But the great joy of the show is the way it returns the Sherman brothers' excellent tunes to their theatrical origins. In Gillian Lynne's musical staging, Me Ol' Bamboo becomes a rousing English folk-dance, in which Michael Ball's amiable Potts finds himself haplessly involved. And Chu-Chi Face, in which Nichola McAuliffe's sexy baroness runs rings around Brian Blessed's Vulgarian baron, is even more clearly than before a pastiche of Lehar operetta.
Anthony Ward's designs, however, are the show's most remarkable feature. What is especially brilliant is the way he plays with recurring machine motifs. Thus Potts's windmill home is symbolised by a giant revolving cog-wheel. Lord Scrumptious's sweet factory is dominated by a large circular clock with a liquorice-stick pendulum. But, of course, it is the car everyone has come to see, and I can only report that when it becomes airborne and flies over the front stalls there are gasps of astonished delight.
Not everything is perfect. The second half includes an irrelevant samba number, and Richard O'Brien's spider-limbed Childcatcher has little chance to match the satanic malevolence of Robert Helpmann in the movie.
But Emma Williams's Truly Scrumptious lives up to her name, David Ross and Emil Wolk are pantomimically funny as the Vulgarian spies, and Noble's production is the best he has done in years. The result is a musical that has that quality of ecstasy one always looks for in the genre but rarely finds.