Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

New Wimbledon Theatre and Touring

With one of the best origin stories of any book/film/musical, everyone’s favourite personality-filled car (apart from Lightning McQueen and Herbie) soars into the New Wimbledon Theatre. The story of a magic Mercedes chassis saving a single-parent family from a child-hating fictitious Eastern European monarchy still makes little sense, but does it need to?

Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, had a heart attack in 1961. Deciding to put to paper a story he used to tell to his child, thus Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was born. Leaning into the Anglomaniac success of Mary Poppins, Albert Romolo Broccoli commissioned the Sherman brothers (Robert B and Richard M) to work their spells on a new film (1968), with a screenplay by none other than Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes (who also directed).

This led to 10 years of collaboration between the brothers and Walt Disney, giving us musical gems such as Bedknobs and BroomsticksThe Sword in the StoneThe Jungle BookCharlotte’s WebThe Aristocats and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This quintessentially English (created mainly by Americans) tale was left fallow for almost 40 years before Jeremy Sams adapted the piece for the stage in 2002. After a sell-out, three-and-a-half-year run at the London Palladium, the piece took off (quite literally) on the road.

Now we are in Wimbledon, ready to love the story all over again thanks (in part) to Thom Southerland’s zippy direction. Whimsical, witty and wonderful. A children’s musical with enough innuendo, colour and mechanics to entertain a wide swath of the audience.

Firstly, hats off to the car, dear Chitty, or more precisely Kielan Yates as head of automation. Touring production sets can be a little like the diet version of their West End originals, but the magic of the floating machine is very much felt. Morgan Large’s set is Steampunk meets Candyland, with a vivid colour palette for goodies and baddies, and nice progressive costumes (in comparison to the traditional Edwardian film). Truly Scrumptious is given an Amelia Earhart revamp in trousers and is more fleshed out as a female lead, one that Ellie Nunn breathes assertive life into.

Charlie Brooks is the production’s female Childcatcher, avoiding a lot of the distasteful undercurrents of the film but still managing to be menacing, helped by a comic accent and crystal-rimmed undertakers’ garb. She looks every inch a Doctor Who nemesis.

Throughout the villains rather steal the show: Adam Stafford and Michael Joseph as magnificently camp (if a little problematic example of queer coding) henchmen, and Martin Callaghan and Bibi Jay (understudy extraordinaire) as the Vulgarian baron and baroness. These four are sidesplittingly silly, filthy in only the way that an ‘innocent’ 1960s children’s film/updated play can be. Utter delight.

The goodies are where some punctures prove problematic. Adam Garcia is emotionally stiff as father/inventor Caractacus Potts, although he does throw himself into the dance numbers. Liam Fox is a perplexing casting choice for Grandpa Potts as he’s only three years older than his child. Now my biology is pretty bad, but that seems unfeasible, and no number of bushy white whiskers will cover it.

Now I am a cynical wisened little raisin, and most likely more on the baron/baronesses’ side than the lovely singing children’s. However, Roshan Thomson and Gracie Cochrane as Jeremy and Jemima are stars in the making. Attentive and energetic (not overly shrill), they give fantastic and complex performances.

This touring production brings all the West End magic to a theatre near you. Carefully updated and streamlined, the extra songs (in addition to those from the film) fill out the affair nicely. As the soft refrain of ‘Hushaby Mountain’ warbles over us, more than one eye in the theatre moistens. The live orchestra, flying automobile and chucklesome cast prove too much for even the most sceptical theatregoer, and by the end, we are all screeching: “Oh, you, pretty Chitty Bang Bang; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we love you” all the way home!