Long-running musicals often misplace their spirit of fun and become either stony-faced drill sessions or knowing, winking circuses. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has so far avoided either fate. Thereís an Englishness about the story, the adaptation and even the songs (by the American Sherman brothers) thatís charming rather than cloying or twee. The latest cast, though, are a mixed bag: some great, others just grate.
Eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts, who restores a magical old racing car and has an interest taken in him by Miss Truly Scrumptious (good) and Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria (bad), is still played wonderfully by Gary Wilmot. Wilmot has a natural warmth that buoys up the evening and those around him. Scarlett Strallen (Truly) shows a slight resemblance to her aunt Bonnie Langford, but not enough to rankle.
Baron and Baroness Bomburst hit just the right note: not really menacing, but not entirely ridiculous either. I never thought Iíd be praising Christopher Biggins like this, but he makes a first-rate pouting Baron. Louise Gold always gives excellent value in musicals: sheís talented, funny and energetic, and even redeems the gratuitous samba number, at least till the chorus get their hooves on it.
Itís the oldies that are the weak link. Ex-Crossroads smoothie Tony Adams is a washout as Grandpa Potts: he canít do the brisk old-soldier stuff, and lacks the lung power for the musical numbers. As the Childcatcher, Lionel Blair is unsettling in the wrong way: instead of timeless folk-tale-style sinister, heís more modern-day seedy. The effect is to evoke, accidentally, undertones to the role that weíd rather not think about.
But Chitty remains overall one of the best musical packages in the West End. From the small (the surprisingly petite Chris Ryan as a comic spy) to the huge (the car sailing over the audienceís heads at the Act One finale), adaptor Jeremy Sams and director Adrian Noble have got it pretty consistently right. Two years is nothing as theatrical long runs go, but I donít think the fuel gauge of this one is in the red yet.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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