Truly Scrumptious version takes off


~ Financial Times - 19/04/02 by Alastair Macauly ~

I am bewildered by how much I love the new stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang . When the movie was new, I was a 13-year-old country bumpkin, but even then it seemed too dated for words. A flying car; a heroine called Truly Scrumptious; and not a song worth quoting. I remember it all as icky.

And yet, less than 10 minutes into the stage version, I was in love. Doubtless, 33 years on, I've changed. But I think that something in the essence of Chitty Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has changed too. Sure, it has four new songs; sure, the baddies are fun; sure, it's theatrically spectacular. But that's not it. Thanks - I think to the adaptation of Jeremy Sams and the direction of Adrian Noble, the stage version has a lit-from-within sweetness that I don't recall in the movie. I believe in Michael Ball (as I didn't in Dick van Dyke) as a protective, vulnerable, lovable Caractacus Potts. As his twin children Jeremy and Jemima, Harry Smith and Lauren Morgen are wonderfully fresh and involved. As Truly Scrumptious, the role that should be the most dated of all, Emma Williams - particularly free from ickiness - has style and spirit.

The sweetness at the show's heart is unlike anything else in the West End. But, even without it, this production would have an immense amount going for it. The storytelling is light: the elements of mass infanticide and Nazi-like terror are handled in perfect cartoon terms. But there is nothing cartoon-like about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang itself. I'm left cold by most cars, but this one really is breathtakingly beautiful. And yes, it flies: it flies out over the orchestra pit, and it turns in the air. Even when you see how this is achieved, its flight is exciting in the way that it isn't in the movie. As for Nichola McAuliffe as Baroness Bomburst, she delivers a classic caricature performance: vulgarity in comic excelsis. Brian Blessed does his usual larger-than-life bluster as her husband: it's the first tolerable performance he's given in years. My only reservation is that Richard O'Brien, visually lethal, is vocally underpowered as the Childcatcher.

This is another musical you have to see. When the CD comes out in June, I won't be playing it. The music and lyrics by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman - including the four new songs - are formulaic, though very efficiently so. And yet there are real musical pleasures to be had. That silly title song stops being silly here: every time it comes back, it has more rhythmic complexity. Gillian Lynne's choreography (some witty use use of wonderful Nutcracker steps) has a more brilliant command of dance vocabulary than will be found from almost any ballet choreographer working in today's opera houses. And when Michael Ball sings "Hushabye Mountain", although his tone is too fluttery during his account of the first verse, it's marvellously firm. When he then lets the song expand, the tenderness that underlies this whole show becomes transcendent.

* Yesterday's matinee performance went ahead without a hitch after technical difficulties forced the last-minute cancellation of the performance on Wednesday night. "After a quick pit stop, she's back on the road," said producer Michael Rose yesterday .


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