What's on Stage Review
~ 17/04/02 by Mark Shenton ~
Yes, the car does fly - twice. And no, you can't see how (or not very easily)! Fully laden with three adults and two children, it even comes out over the front few rows of the stalls, does a U-turn and heads for the stage ceiling. In a four-fendered flash, The Phantom of the Opera's plummeting chandelier and Miss Saigon's helicopter are erased from theatrical folklore.
The vehicle in question is, of course, the titular Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which an eccentric single-parent inventor, Caractacus Potts (Michael Ball), is now turning into a flying machine to the amusement of his twin children and soon-to-be-mistress, Truly Scrumptious (and with a name like that, she could be a Bond girl; not for nothing, of course, was original author Ian Fleming also responsible for creating Bond. As one astute capsule review of the film of Chitty summarises its plot, "James Bond goes to Romper Room").
But the show itself frequently sinks. And occasionally, stinks: literally so. As yet another of Carcactacus' inventions goes up in smoke, a heavy smell of sulphur pervades the London Palladium's soporific air, and this stage adaptation of the much beloved 1968 children's movie musical rarely rises above it.
Director Adrian Noble - slumming it from his day job running the RSC - and most especially his designer Anthony Ward certainly give you an eyeful, but other adult senses are little engaged. As rather camp, corny spectacle - complete with the kind of chorus dancing (courtesy of choreographer Gillian Lynne) that is straight out of panto-land - it works a treat. And children - the target audience - will undoubtedly be beguiled.
In the theatre, however, less is often more; and here, more is definitely less. Sure, you can see every penny of your ticket price on stage: not just the bedazzling sets, but also a cast of 46, not to mention 17 children and even a full set of live dogs (eat your heart out, Cats). But the creative team of this musical are so busy creating, they've left nothing to the imagination. The result is a very literal translation of the film, which in the process turns it into more of an overproduced pantomime than a fully realised musical. (The audience quickly gets the idea and starts hissing the villains and clapping along to the tunes.)
In the circumstances, there isn't much opportunity for individuality in the performances from an on-paper top-notch cast including Ball, Anton Rodgers, Richard O'Brien, Edward Petherbridge and Brian Blessed - most of whom resort to caricaturing their film equivalents. Only Nichola McAuliffe - outrageously funny as Baronesss Bomburst - wins through, almost effortlessly stealing every scene she's in.