Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ***

It’s easy to be overly cynical about the production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang currently parked in Scotland.  It is a staged rehash of a much loved film that lacks much dramatic substance and has a towering budget that dwarfs any sense of humanity.  It’s also a prelude to panto season, with loud boos and cheers escaping from the audience, all capped with the screams, sniffles, whispers and occasional aisle-running of bored children.

And yet, I find it difficult to be too harsh because, like the dogs that come running out at key moments, it is eager to please and just wants to be loved.

For the uninitiated, Chitty is inspired by a family book written by Ian Fleming.  The film, produced by the James Bond production team and with songs by the Disney in-house writing team of the Sherman brothers, is a holiday staple that follows the adventures of the Potts family and their magical car.  There are heroes, including the good-hearted father and slightly mad inventor Caractacus Potts and the aptly named damsel Truly Scrumptious, and there are villains, including the toy-loving and teddy bear clutching Baron Bomburst and the much feared Child Catcher.

And there is the titular car.  The staging and special effects used to make Chitty drive, float and fall are impressive, and when the car literally takes off and flies around the theatre space the audience launch into thunderous applause.  It’s all awe-inspiring stuff that is well worth the money.

Too bad, then, that the production as a whole doesn’t feel the same way.  There’s nothing overtly bad or wrong with it.  It is directed with flourish by Adrian Nobel, and Antony Ward’s design is both playful and impressive.  Still, the production does feel limited on stage and nothing comes close to matching what’s in the film.  In fact, many of the films weaknesses have found themselves amplified by the stage: it’s overlong, filled with under-developed characters and unfocused in the second half.

There are some rather good performances to be had.  Darren Bennett and Katie Ray make for effective leads with good energy and nice voices, and John Griffiths has some great moments as Grandpa.  I was really impressed by the comedic double act of Nigel Garton and Richard Ashton as bumbling spies Goran and Boris, and Dean Maynard’s Child Catcher is quite scary, though he’s not on stage nearly enough to be a true threat.

Still, I was completely underwhelmed by the production as a whole.  Yes, the car is quite an impressive feat and there are some slick musical numbers and solid performances, but the evening still felt hollow, especially when compared to the film.  It received quite a standing ovation in the end; though I didn’t feel the production earned the rapturous applause, the car, and its creators, certain did.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Performing at the Kings in Glasgow until November 14.  Will also be at the Edinburgh Playhouse from May 18-June 5, 2010.

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