Rest of the week's theatre

~ The Times, 21/04/2002 by John Peter ~

Ah well, Adrian Noble was right after all. Recently, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he draws a six- figure salary, explained to an astonished Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight why he had gone off to direct Chitty Chitty Bang Bang just as his reorganisation of the RSC plunged the company into turmoil. People with young children, he said, with innocent effrontery, were under a lot of pressure to make money. I have to report that the man has done it. Chitty Chitty should run and run and run, and make lots and lots of money. It is a big, joyful, enchanting show. Where Ken Hughes's famous 1968 musical film, with music and lyrics by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman, was insufferably twee, this production, adapted by Jeremy Sams, is fresh, warm-hearted, thrillingly inventive: in a word, magical. You cannot fool children: they can spot fake magic from a mile. The night I saw the show, the children's joy was obvious. No fidgeting, no chattering, only rapt attention. This is one of the uses of enchantment.

Perhaps the best thing about Noble's production is his direction of the children, who could easily have come across as ghastly little Edwardian urchins asking for gooey sympathy. Not here, though. These are real kids, working like pros: quite a dangerous lot.

The show is cast to the hilt, with Michael Ball as an attractive, open-faced Caractacus Potts, clearly potty about his children, and Anton Rodgers as his batty old dad, who likes to receive visitors in his jimjams. Edward Petherbridge is the Toymaker, Sly and Fretful, and Richard O'Brien, as the Child Catcher, is a combination of Richard III and a pantomime queen. Young Emma Williams makes her West End debut as Truly Scrumptious, and lives up to her name. Nichola McAuliffe has the time of her life as the evil, child- hating Baroness Bomburst, flashing a superb pair of legs. I hope the little boys in the audience will remember them when they grow up.

The hero of the show, though, is the designer, Anthony Ward. The costumes and the sets combine observation and fantasy, and the special effects, particularly the flying sequences, are breathtaking. The fantastic and the unreal can look more exciting in the theatre than in the cinema, possibly because the ingenuity is more real, but it takes a master to bathe it in magic.

This is a show for all ages: for children who respond to fantasy because, deep down, they know it's real, and for adults who like to pretend, usually in vain, that they are grown-ups.


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