Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the car, is terrific, and deserves her curtain call. She’s awesome and cost over a million dollars to make, but all that spit, polish and Turtle Wax can’t make her script sparkle.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the show, is a shiny lemon that really shouldn’t be compared to the other Sherman brothers musical Mary Poppins and neither should this production be compared to the recent Australian Poppins.
Most of its shine is from Antony Ward’s delicious design that gloriously evokes memories of the film but is original and contemporary and filled with hidden detail and surprises.
The story is about an inventor Caractacus Potts, his two children and their potential new mum, called Truly Scrumptious, who all take a trip in their amazing flying car to a place called Vulgaria, which has a glittery Nazi-esque monarchy and a creepy dude called the Child Catcher. It’s based on the 1968 film, written by Roald Dahl (!) and Ken Hughes, that’s based on a children’s story by Ian (007) Fleming. I haven’t read the book, but watched the film as a child (and a bit now on You Tube) and I don’t think it’s fair to compare them either.
For all the delightfully mad characters, the clunky stage story is forced, lacks basic this-happened-because logic and structure, has an unearned, tensionless ending and doesn’t let its wonderful characters be particularly interesting or creative because the car solves their problems. It feels like scenes have been squished together in the hope that it’ll create delicate layers, but it’s more a trifley mess where the yummy bits get lost in too much globby custard made from powder, no-fat milk and forgettable songs (apart from the ear-worm title song) that don’t move the story or reveal anything new.
If anyone dares huff and say that kids don’t care about these things, I suggest that you spend more time with children, read some children’s books and watch kids when they watch theatre or films, or pick the scrummy bits out of a globby trifle. Kids near me were snoozing by the end, but my favourite moment was a little boy’s declaration of “that’s not funny”. I’m with you, kid. It wasn’t funny and I think people were only laughing to be polite.
It’s certainly not the performers fault that it’s a dud script.
All the children are especially terrific. I used to love watching children perform when I was a child and my best recommendation to see this is to let kids you know be inspired by other kids. It’s just a shame that they have to play such goody-goodies who get out of trouble because they have a magic car rather than by planning ingenious mischief.
The comic characters bring genuine comic relief and, even in scenes that slow the story (what’s with the Samba?), are a hoot. George Kapiniaris and Todd Goddard as Vulgarian spies are popular with the kids, and grown ups will always groan at King Alan Brough and Queen Jennifer Vuletic’s sexy royal shenanigans.
Rachel Beck is truly lovely as Truly, Peter Carrol is a delight as Grandpa Potts and David Hobson can sure sing, but lacks the love and appeal that should make every kid want Caractacus Potts as their dad, inspire all dads and uncles to be like him, and make the audience understand why Truly fancies him.
When you have a script that isn’t brilliant, it’s up to the director (Roger Hodgman) and the cast to bring extra to the stage so that the faults are forgivable. It feels like it was directed scene by scene rather than as a whole and most of the cast could bring a bit more heart to make their characters and the world real. I have to compare it to the recent production of Annie. Now, Annie’s script is far from a gem, but every person on the stage, from stars to swings, knew their place in that world and found the love in the most cringe-worthy scenes; in Chitty the cast know their cues and the ensemble know their chorey (except a pair in the Samba who were counting, or maybe chatting).
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s not a perfect show to begin with, but there’s enough creative talent involved to overcome its problems and make it something really scrumptious. And unless they do, there’s nothing wrong with buying the DVD and reading your kids some Roald Dahl stories about wonderfully wicked children.