REVIEW: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, West Yorkshire Playhouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at West Yorkshire Playhouse and UK Tour
Harry Grasby as Jeremy, Lucy Sherman as Jemima and Jon Robyns as Caractacus Potts. Photo: Alastair Muir

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
West Yorkshire Playhouse
5 Stars
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At a time when theatres across the country are in full on pantomime mode, the West Yorkshire Playhouse took a gamble and programmed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as their Christmas offering and judging by the audience reaction tonight that gamble has paid of handsomely, as audiences stood and cheered for Chitty, clapping manically as if their lives depended on it.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took thirty years to reach the stage. Originally produced as a film in 1968, the creators were an improbable mix that blended together to create an utterly irresistible confection that has withstood the test of time, and has become a cross generational staple thanks to its permanent place in Christmas television viewing schedules. It’s interesting to note that the original film script was co-written by Roald Dahl and there’s no doubt that like many Dahl books, Chitty is blessed with a dark side that is irresistible to children and adults alike.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang UK Tour
Photo: Alastair Muir

In this current stage production of Chitty (only the second major production ever in the UK), the West Yorkshire Playhouse has teamed up with producers Music and Lyrics which will see this musical marvel fly into theatre around the UK throughout 2016.

This production of Chitty has been put together by the able hands of Director  James Brining, the only change being the reintroduction of the poignant ballad Lovely Lonely Man which was not in the 2002 stage production and the excision of Kiddie Widdie Winkies, the Childcather’s number which was perhaps just a tiny bit too creepy. The Palladium production, was an incredibly large and spectacular production designed to fill the legendary venue but here, Brinning has helmed an equally spectacular production, but one that has more intimacy and a great deal of heart.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang UK Tour Tickets
Don Gallagher and Tamsin Carroll as the Vulgar Bombhursts. Photo: Alastair Muir

Sets designed by Simon Higlett integrate with glorious video projections designed by Simon Wainwright. The two designers manage to crate not only the world of Chitty in the present day but also deliver Chitty’s glorious backstory as a Grand Prix winner now fallen into disrepair . The visual look of Chitty doesn’t detract in any way from the production, in fact if anything it spurs the imagination onwards and opens minds to greater possibilities.

Stephen Mear has once again delivered a musical that moves seamlessly. All of the big production numbers explode off the stage effortlessly. Me Ol’ Bamboo, Toot Sweets and The Bombie Samba (written for the original stage adaptation) are joyous, fun numbers that are infectious and had the audience clapping in a haze of childhood delirium.

As Caractacus Potts, Jon Robyns is in his element. Growing throughout the show, it’s a performance delivered with a sparkle in his eye and your heart in his hands. Hushabye Mountain had both my guest and I in a complete mess halfway through the first act, not an easy feat. Robyns is a big kid whose been let lose in a chocolate factory (hold it that’s another musical) but you get what I mean. There’s not a minute on stage he doesn’t seem to be enjoying and that joy created a bond that the audience embraced from start to finish.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang UK Tour
Amy Griffiths as Truly Scrumptious. Photo: Alastair Muir

Robyns is joined on stage by Amy Griffiths as a truly terrific Truly Scrumptious. This Truly is slightly less Sally Ann Howes and slightly more Keira Knightley, as independent and fabulous as you could possibly imagine. Griffith is great in the bigger production numbers but she really comes into her own in Lovely Lonely Man and Doll On A Music Box, two of the most gorgeous ballads in the show.

No Chitty is complete without its core of villans, and this Chitty is blessed with some of the best you’ll find. Don Gallagher as Baron Bombhurst and Tamsin Carroll as Baroness Bombhurst, play the two Vulgar villains magnificently. Like a Vaudeville duo of old, every move, lyric and joke lands with a laugh. There’s no doubting that the duo are about as revolting as they come but they revel in being allowed to be the glamorous, bratty villans and the audience laps it up.

Sam Harrison (Boris) and Scott Paige (Goran)  as Vulgaria’s hapless spies are a treat. Blessed with some of the best one-liners in the show and a great song called Act English (written for the stage adaptation), this duo are true panto sidekicks and get to the point sometimes where they threaten to out Vulgar the Baron and Baroness. They are possibly the most useless and utterly loveable spies in the business.

As Grandpa Potts, Andy Hockley is wonderful as the man who often hides away from the world by taking a trip to India (a wonderfully off kilter out house). Like Lionel Jeffries in the original film, Hockley’s Grandpa Potts is as bombastic and as wonderful as you could hope for. His rousing number with the Vulgarian scientists The Roses Of Success is just superb.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang UK Tour
Stephen Matthews as The Childcatcher. Photo: Alastair Muir

Of course, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang created the ultimate terror over the years for children in the wonderfully evil and horrific looking Childcatcher. His crooked nose and balletic prancing and those ghoulish eyes make this character on of the real on stage delights in this production. Aided by Wainwrights projections, Stephen Matthews is able to ooze onto the stage and pounce into action in a truly creepy portrayal that was a joy to watch.  Children around me seemed genuinely scared which is just as it should be.

This production of Chitty really is a team effort. There are wonderful moments from Ewen Cummings as the Toymaker, and from the lively chorus of children who make Act Two’s song Teamwork just the thing to drive this musical past the finishing line. There are also some standout performances from the ensemble cast particularly notably from Ewan Gillies, Abigail Climer and Perry O’Dea.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang UK Tour
Andy Hockley as Grandpa Potts and the Vulgarian scientists. Photo: Alastair Muir

But the star of this production undoubtedly is the score by Robert B Sherman and Richard M Sherman. There aren’t many people in the world who could claim never to have heard one of their wonderful compositions for many of Disney’s films including Mary Poppins and  Bedknobs and Broomsticks amongst many others. These two incredible talents wrote over 150 songs that were featured in more than 27 films and two dozen television productions. It’s one enormous musical legacy and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is blessed with some of their most beautiful melodies. There were few in the audience on Opening Night that weren’t singing along with the shows title song at the end of the show with the sort of smiles on their faces that most other composers would kill for.

Get out and get a seat when Chitty comes to a theatre near you. Take your kids or just go and revel in the enormous joy that resonates off the stage in waves. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be entertaining young and old for a long time to come and who could want for more from a stage production.

There’s no doubt that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as fantasmagorical as ever. Don’t miss it!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is currently playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse prior to a national tour.

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