A year and a half in, and the magical car shows no signs of running out of gas. It's often (perhaps even usually) the case that long-running musicals gradually misplace their spirit of fun and become either stony-faced drill sessions or knowing, winking circuses. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has avoided that fate, so far at least. In the hands of a new cast it remains deliciously clever without growing cloyingly clever-clever.
There is something about Chitty which all those with creative input either consciously or unconsciously respect and preserve, a particular kind of Englishness. Ian Fleming's story falls somewhere between the snobbish side of his James Bond work (the villainous foreigner here is, after all, Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria) and the wry late-Victorian magic tales of E. Nesbit. When the Sherman brothers wrote the songs for the 1968 film, the strains of sentiment and jollity alike had an especially English feel, with more than one number plainly redolent of music-hall. (This is underlined in Adrian Noble's production, when one such ditty, "The Roses Of Success", includes a brief Flanagan & Allen pastiche.) The additional songs do their best to fit into this mould, and largely succeed, except when they don't give a toss and concentrate instead on enabling gratuitous big-production sequences such as "The Bombie Samba".
Jeremy Sams' adaptation and Noble's direction identify and work with that same spirit, which one sees in the best pantomimes, quite separate from all the hoary old routines. At every step, something seems to encourage enjoyment without patronisation. Gary Wilmot is friendly and unshowy as eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts, Russ Abbott firmly in the Lionel Jeffries grizzled-but-cuddly camp as his father. Victor Spinetti is every inch (even including that padding) the old pro as the Baron, and Wayne Sleep knows exactly how to slink menacingly as the Childcatcher (though his reliance relies on Sprechgesang in his musical number is a little obvious).
Sandra Dickinson overplays several of her gags as the Baroness, but has the unusual and endearing knack of managing somehow to squeak like a battleaxe; similarly, Caroline Sheen puts audible effort into Truly Scrumptious's crisp accent, but transcends this to live fully up to her character's name. Anthony Ward's design remains a treat, and even having seen it before, it is hard not to gasp in wonder when the full-size car sails out over the front stalls. Like Potts' invented confection Toot Sweets, this remains a musical morsel supreme, and thankfully more Bang than Chitty.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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