Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
The crowds of eager-faced youngsters milling happily around the foyer of the Festival theatre say it all – there’s a bona fide family show in town and everyone’s up for some good old-fashioned feelgood entertainment. Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, first published as a novel in 1964 and made into a Disney movie in 1968, made it to the stage in 2002 and it’s been thrilling audiences pretty much ever since.
Caractacus Potts (Jason Manford), a would-be inventor and recent widower, desperately needs to make thirty shillings in order to save an old racing car from the scrap-merchants. His two young children, Jeremy and Jemima (played on the night we attended by Hayden Goldberg and Caitlin Surtees) love the car too – particularly when their father has managed to buy it and has applied his unusual skills to customising it. Pretty soon the Potts family have a car that can do all kinds of amazing things… and then along comes Truly Scrumptious (Charlotte Wakefield), and a romance is soon in the air…
Of course, if your play is named after the car rather than a human character, you’re going to expect it to be pretty special and sure enough, the ingenious staging of this production really does convince you that the titular vehicle can race down roads, speed across water and even take to the skies. But perhaps the real revelation here is Manford, who has managed to make the difficult transformation from Northern stand up to an all-singing, all-dancing trooper. The boy really can hit those notes. And there’s no getting around the powerful spell woven by the wonderfully sinister Child Catcher (Jos Vantyler) who seems to have wandered in from a small child’s nightmares.
Okay, so not everything in the henhouse is perfect. The spectre of the scary foreigner, which hangs over the production in the shape of the Vulgarians, headed up by Baron and Baroness Bomburst (Phill Jupitus and Claire Sweeney), might make more enlightened hackles rise, but CCBB is very much a product of the era in which it was conceived – and perhaps it’s no great surprise from the creator of James Bond, a man who spent his early years working for Naval Intelligence. Nevertheless, there’s much here to enjoy.
What CCBB has in spades, of course, is those memorable songs – you’ll almost certainly exit the building humming the Sherman Brothers’ incredibly catchy theme song – I know we did. This is a classy production, slickly staged and perfectly tailored for a family audience. Be sure to take your kids to see it. They’ll believe a car can fly.