Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Lyric Theatre, QPAC
21st November, 2013
Some 45 years since the release of the now classic feature film of the same name, staring the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke, Sally Anne Howes (and, would you believe, Australia’s Sir Robert Helpman as the Child Catcher?) the modern stage incarnation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has finally made it to Brisbane. Wrapping up a successful Australian tour for 2013, it’s been a long and probably quite exhausting run for the company. The show has received a huge amount of publicity, even some glowing accolades but frankly, I struggle to see what all the fuss is about.
Clearly James Bond creator, Ian Flemming had a “thing” for lavish cars with fanciful gadgets and he let his imagination run wild with his series of short stories (originally entitled: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – The Magical Car”) that he penned for his son and first published in 1964. The stories centred on a derelict old car (based upon a real English Derby winner) found rusting at a junkyard, being faithfully restored by “inventor extraordinaire” Caractacus Potts. Acclaimed Children’s author Roald Dahl combined the stories into one and added a few of his own touches when he adapted the curious tales of “Chitty” for the 1968 movie.
By his own admission, stage writer Jeremy Sams said: “the film is definitely the show’s starting point. Roald Dahl’s screenplay had moved things on a long way from Flemming’s original and I think we have moved things on further still.” * The problems I have with this stage script are that it is very thin, almost pantomime in its style and it’s two clear stories. I’d have been quite happy to have gone home at interval - the tale of an old car, its racing history, its impending doom and its spectacular resurrection, had been told by the end of Act I. Act II was another adventure all together and one, to be honest, that felt just a little drawn out and superfluous at times.
However, having said that, this is a delightful cast who work very hard to convincingly maintain some pretty thin characters for almost 2½ hours of performance. Rachael Beck (with whom I worked on Home & Away many years ago!) is thoroughly divine as Miss Truly Scrumptious. I think her voice (which has always been beautiful) just continues to improve with every show in which she appears. David Hobson plays Potts, the inventor. Again, this role suits his stunning tenor voice and his slightly over-played operatic acting style.
A standout amongst the company is wonderfully animated Jennifer Vuletic as the narcissistic, child-loathing Baroness Bomburst. Sadly she’s set against a somewhat two-dimensional Shane Bourne as the Baron, who looked and sounded a little out of place within such a vibrant company. Dana Jolly’s high-octane choreography certainly keeps the ensemble fit and the show’s momentum up whilst the audio, at times, lets it down as some of the spoken dialogue is almost incomprehensible under the otherwise stirring live music.
It is said that the creation of the famed flying Mercedes has become the most expensive theatre prop in all history … and one can see why. It really makes for a delightful piece of theatre magic and when it quite literally “takes off” late in the first act, there is a palpable gasp of anticipation and delight from within the auditorium. It’s just a shame that having “fired that cannon”, there was nowhere left for it to go throughout the entire second act. It’s a shame there wasn’t just one more trick up its manifold to impress again as the intelligent automobile steps in and saves the day at the story’s climax.
Like the magical car, the sets and costumes (by British designer Anthony Ward) are bold and vibrant. The costumes a study in colour and lines - the backdrops created with an interesting perspective. However it seems that they blew all their money before all the sets had been built. It struck me as peculiar that the finale of the show, allegedly set in the Baron’s castle, where the cast actually refer to the “happy ending” … and yet they play the entire scene against standard blacks. Not the effervescent final image I’d have expected from a production of this calibre. A production that had, in earlier scenes, utilised such attractive stage sets, superb costumes and some dead-impressive “invention” props.
As I said at the start, this is not so much a grand, family Musical in the style of Mary Poppins but more a lavish and long Pantomime without the audience interaction. If you can convince your children to sit still for 2½ hours without getting bored and restless (I have to admit that I struggled) then I’d concede that it’s fun, harmless family entertainment but not something I’d rush back to see for a second time.
* History Notes by Mark Fox