Last month Amazon Prime launched Jeremy Clarkson and Co’s latest offering, The Grand Tour: which in effect is three big kids getting into scrapes at home and abroad with cars. Well that isn’t too dissimilar to the plot for the Ian Fleming, penned Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. However that’s where the similarities end and quite frankly the world is a better place for it.
The 1968 film version is as much a part of Christmas as the Queen’s speech, turkey dinner and indigestion so it seems only right that this much loved classic is The Lowry’s big show for Christmas wonderfully brought to life the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Set in 1919 we find the rather eccentric widowed father, Caractacus Potts trying to forage enough money to save a bent and broken race-car from the scrap heap. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has become the beloved plaything of his two children Jeremy and Jemima. However the family soon find themselves in great danger as the evil Baron and Baroness Bombast of Vulgaria also have designs on the former Grand-Prix winning race car: dispatching a couple of dodgy spies, the might of the Vulgarian navy and the truly terrifying Childcatcher. Can the Potts family save themselves and their beloved car? Will they all live happily after? Here’s hoping!
Director James Brining has the monumental task of transferring the magic of the film onto the stage and it’s fair to say he pulls it off magnificently. Aided and abetted by designer Simon Higlett and video designer Simon Wainwright, Higlett’s set design is wonderful: from the Potts family windmill house to the Baron’s fortress – they are all stunning. Wainwright’s video is first class as it manages seamlessly to transfer us from one location to the next: one minute we’re on an idyllic drive through the countryside and the next you’re involved in a gun battle at sea.
As we all know the car is the star of the show but it is supported by some fine performances. Jason Manford in the lead as Caractacus Potts is likable as the doting father, he brings warmth and charm to the role: sometimes he grins and gurns a bit too much and it has to be said his accent is all over the place at times. Maybe he was channelling his inner Dick Van Dyke, but that was Mary Poppins not Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. However Manford’s main strength lies in his singing voice: he is a very talented singer indeed highlighted in the beautiful Hushabye Mountain. Charlotte Wakefield is on good form as the fabulously named Truly Scrumptious bringing a touch of spirit and zest to the role. The on stage chemistry between the two is a joy to watch, especially during Doll on a Music Box.
There are also fine performances from Sam Harrison and Scott Paige as the Vulgarian spies Boris and Goran, both are great fun and very nearly steal the show as they get all the best lines and lots of laughs. There are some jokes which are pretty near the knuckle but will fly over the younger audience members heads and amuse adult members of the audience; they had both audience members young and old alike howling with laughter. Claire Sweeney is great as Baroness Bomburst giving a slightly toned down performance… well toned down when compared to the rest of the show. Phill Jupitus offers a bizarre turn as Baron Bomburst: flip-flopping between over exuberance and looking completely disinterested: frequently breaking between his over the top Vulgarian accent to a dead-pan delivery. It’s not abundantly clear what he is trying to achieve by this but it certainly is what can best be described as a ‘Marmite’ performance. Jos Vantyler is outstanding as the Childcatcher, helped along with a wonderful piece of lighting from Tim Mitchell; we have a villain as wicked, as sinister and even more terrifying than the original.
There were a few technical difficulties on the night which stopped the show for roughly 10 minutes which upset the momentum slightly, however the cast carried on like true professionals. The main problem with the show is its pacing: acts one and two are quite bloated and do become slightly drawn out at times. Whilst the ending seems slightly rushed with the payoff not justifying the lengthy build up. Overall this a good solid family fun show, filled with fun and adventure, it just needed a few more thrills and spills and probably not suitable for young children as it will not keep them engaged for the duration of its running time.
Judging by the impromptu audience clap-along as soon the signature Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tune is played there is plenty of love for our “fine four fender friend”, she just needs to heed the warning of those motorway signs about tiredness.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is on at The Lowry Theatre till the 15th Jan 2017
Reviewer: Matt Forrest