Before I begin, I understand that I am a little bit late to the party. The UK tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, starring Lee Mead and Carrie Hope Fletcher as Caractacus Potts and Truly Scrumptious, first hit the stage a week ago on Wednesday 4th May. I was amongst the ones lucky enough to be in the audience that night.
One of the most exciting things about being in the audience waiting for it all to begin was seeing the variety of ages that were present, from the young children sat behind me. And why shouldn’t there be? For whatever reason, CCBB is timeless. In the original film, Dick van Dyke’s performance is one that transcends time. Classic’s like Me Ol’ Bamboo and Toot Sweets inspire joy, whilst not knowing the chorus to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the song that draws its name from Ian Fleming’s fantasmagorical machine) would leave you in a minority.
Clearly then, this cast had a big billing to live up too.
Adapting a book for film is never easy, and turning that film into a musical is even harder. Throw in a flying car and you’d have to be crazy to take on such a project. For the 2016 UK tour, that man was James Brining, the artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I can’t argue with the job that he did, managing a host of names that will be familiar to many, alongside many lesser known actors who pulled together as a unit to create a solid ensemble that allowed everyone a platform from which to shine.
As with musicals such as Les Miserables, The Lion King, and Matilda, the risk-factor in CCBB was the importance of the roles of Jeremy and Jemima Potts; the children of protagonist Caractacus Potts. Not only are they pivotal to the storyline, they also have key roles in several of the songs. For some, performing on stage (avg. age 10 – 11) to an audience of hundreds may be overwhelming. However, “Team Purple” featuring Harry Kent and Lucy Sherman put on very strong performances. They and their parents should be very proud.
Over in the fictional land of Vulgaria, Shaun Williamson and Michelle Collins displayed splendid on-stage chemistry as the “evil” Baron and “child-hating” Baroness Bomburst. Both, however, were outshone by the splendid performances of Sam Harrison and Scott Paige; the Vulgarian spy double-act. These two seemed born to fulfil the roles of Boris and Goran respectively, drawing the largest laughs of the night during their duet, ‘Act English’ (written specifically for the stage show). They are most certainly names to keep an eye on.
With a flying car in tow, touring something on the scale of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cannot be easy, and huge congratulations must go out to the design teams for creating such an efficient set. Again though, we are drawn back to decisions made by director James Brining and, the one to involve multi-media was a master stroke. Not only did it reduce the need for tangible props such, it also created new opportunities. For example, using this element during Huashabye Mountain really accentuated the emotion conveyed by the songs lyrics.
Unfortunately though, it wasn’t the perfect opening night, as Chitty herself showed a little stage-fright (or perhaps a diva tantrum?) just as she was about to be introduced, forcing the musical to be put on hold for around half an hour whilst technical repairs were carried out. I have to admit, as time passed I did wonder if they would be able to get Chitty (and the musical) up and running again. Fortunately this was the case, and a huge congratulations must go out to the whole cast for throwing themselves back into their roles as if nothing had happened – it’s a lot harder than one might think.
I was fortunate enough that, after work on Thursday 5th, I bumped into Carrie Hope Fletcher at Milton Keynes City Centre, followed by seeing Lee Mead relaxing on the grass next to Iceland between shows. It meant I could congratulate them both after what, in hindsight, was a very tricky opening night to navigate. Needless to say, both were very kind and lovely people. Funnily enough, it was their duet of Doll on a Music Box / Truly Scrumptious in the second act that provided us with the most beautiful moment of the night. Both displayed tremendous technical skill to create a harmony that resonated with pure emotion and had the entire audience frozen. It was a perfect, beautiful moment in an otherwise fast-paced show.
The musical finishes its run in Milton Keynes on May 14th, but this is just the first leg of its tour. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend you go and see it, because there is nothing like it out there. I’m not the easiest one to please when it comes to live theatre, but I spent the majority of the time feeling like a child again with a smile slapped across my face.
Rating: Truly Scrumptious