Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
The Mayflower Theatre,
Review by Emma Shane
© July 2007
The problem with seeing any
show second time round, when the first time round was very good, is how will a
different cast measure up? Especially when the earlier cast includes such
extraordinary actresses as Scarlet Strallen and Louise Gold. I
was particularly concerned about the role of the Baroness (that had been
terrific – if somewhat extraordinary when I saw it before). Fortunately this
touring production does have the benefit of including several performers who
had been in the show in London; While some of the others, are pretty fine
actors in their own right; who have also played major roles in the West End
(all be it in other shows); And Louise Plowright did a jolly good job in
Follies. So was there a chance this cast would pull it
off? And just how would it compare to the show at The London Palladium
(prior to the opening of the Broadway production -obviously some changes were subsequently
made to the
The show starts with Greg Arrowsmith conducting the overture (he had conducted often at The Palladium). Then into the Prologue. Although this had been somewhat reduced from the Opening of the earlier production, I was pleased to see some of it remained, and particularly that the Baron and Baroness were still shown at the race track watching and reacting to the race.
At the scrapyard, I think the two children were played by Fraser Jenkins and Katie Reynolds. They seem to be ok. Truly’s entrance on a motor bicycle was much as before, even if Marissa Dunlop doesn’t quite have Scarlet Strallen’s stage presence. She seems to be nevertheless perfectly satisfactory, and quite engaging and convincing in the role. Back at the windmill, and Craig McLachlan’s Caractacus is initially a little stiff, but he very soon settles into the role, with a convincing, touching gentle You Two. His accent is not exactly English, but this doesn’t seem to matter too much. The children back him well, but it is his song. Then Grandpa joins them for the meal, and discovers the Toot Sweet, whereupon Tony Adams sings Them Three just as well as he did at The Palladium three years ago.
On the Lord Scrumptious’s factory. Leo Bidwell plays Phillips as a younger man than Graham Hoadley did it, and with less of the Dickensian element, nevertheless he is still very funny. Duncan Smith gives an entirely satisfactory portrayal of Lord Scrumptious. I couldn’t help noticing that Marissa Dunlop didn’t quite have Scarlet Strallen’s panache when pleading with Lord Scrumptious; but then Scarlet Strallen is a Langford. Besides, Marissa Dunlop isn’t bad in the role, by any means. It’s soon onto the number Toot Sweets. Here I really noticed how well the Ensemble danced. Quite possibly better I think than at The Palladium three years ago. And yes, even though this is a provincial theatre, they still included a bunch of performing dogs.
As Boris and Goran, Jaymez Denning and Cornelius Clarke come to the fore with Act English. They make a great double act, something of an improvement on Richard Long and Christopher Ryan; although accent wise I noticed that the song didn’t have any contrast between the first and final verses, I thought perhaps it should have done, but that’s a very minor point.
at the windmill, Caractacus sings the children to sleep with
Come To The Funfair I hadn’t noticed before included the two children, Jeremy And Jemima being moved from their beds on flying wires, around the stage at the start of this number. I also noticed that the costumes have been altered, and I didn’t like the change in costume. Previously the inhabitants of the funfair had been dressed in an old fashioned Victorian/Edwardian circus or Wild West Show type costume, something very reminiscent of Annie Get Your Gun. This fitted in with both the era in which the musical is supposed to be set, and everyone else’s costumes in the show. The costumes now look like some more modern circus, somewhere from the 1960s onwards; which gives it a rather pantomime look. However the ensemble did dance extremely well, which went some way towards making up for the outlandish costumes. I was pleased to notice that the small bunch of ensemble playing visitors to the fun fair included several children (I don’t remember them at The Palladium). Steven Judkins and Hilary Lang, as Sid and Violet respectively, play their little parts convincingly. Caractcus flees to join in Me Ol Bamboo. I really missed Gary Wilmot’s showmanship in this number. Craig McLachlan doesn’t seem to dance as well as Gary Wilmot did, and he looks quite uncomfortable trying to dance this number. However he succeeds in making his discomfort part of his character, so it comes across alright, I just preferred Gary Wilmot’s way of doing the number. The scene ends with the Turkey Farmer, played by Gary Williams catching up with him, to buy the hair-cutting machine; and the addition of a little joke, the farmer is called “Mr Matthews”, of course all the grown-ups in the audience immediately laughed.
With Caractacus working on the car, Tony Adams’s Grandpa leads the two children with Posh, once again Tony Adams brings all his vast experience as a performer (in a variety of theatres, including The Palladium) to the number, and proves he is still a good song-and-dance man. However, I was glad his reprise of Hushaby Mountain had been cut.
Time for Chitty itself to put in an appearance. Instead of coming up through the floor, the car is positioned towards the back of the stage, obviously covered by a tent cloth. On a given signal that is whisked away to reveal Chitty. The two children are very much a double act, saying “Please” to the car, which like at The Palladium turns round on a turntable. Truly has arrived with her basket, so they launch into the title song, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which is just as effective as before. Then to the beach, and the song Truly Scrumptious. I did rather miss the delicious irony with which Scarlet Strallen delivered the line about her name not being as outlandish as her sisters. However Marissa acts her part perfectly well. Allthough this isn’t as big a theatre, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Nautical Reprise) seemed to be just as good as well, it’s rather fun.
Act 1 scene in Vulgaria brings some much more noticeable changes. While some of
these may have been improvements, some I’m not so sure about. The Baron and
Baroness are in council. Judging by the photographs in the programme, different
casts have slightly different costumes, and this time is no exception. I
couldn’t tell whether any wigs were worn, or if Louise Plowright had her
own blond hair done up in earphones? The scene opens with the Baron pointing at
a map. Meanwhile The Baroness is sitting nearby polishing a gun, which
accidentally goes off, and a Vulgarian aide falls to the ground. The Baroness’s
reaction is very much one of “oh well these things happen”. I’m sure
they didn’t have that bit with the gun when I saw the show before. Nevertheless
that was a good addition, not least because it gave Louise Plowright an
opportunity for a delightful moment of wickedness, bringing to the part all her
experience of playing magnificently wicked villainesses in pantomime. She
continues with her regal villainess manner (very like the Wicked Queen in Snow
Of course the act concludes first with The Captain, played rather well by Duncan Smith, kidnapping Grandpa. And then, Caractacus, Truly and the children going in pursuit in Chitty, with Chitty taking to the air. This was technically very impressive. The perfect end to the first act.
Act 1 had been excellent, in some places different to when I had seen the show at The Palladium, but generally comparable; with everyone making their parts their own. However, I couldn’t help feeling that as with Follies, Louise at least, would face a much tougher challenge in Act 2, how would she fair?
Act Two starts with an Entr-acte, the curtain rises on Vulgaria, with Grandpa being “welcomed” with the Vulgarian National Anthem. This had fewer flower hoops than previously, some of the chorus girls held flower sprays instead. Meanwhile the Baron has some business about having his Teddy Bear saluted. I don’t remember that being in there before. This time The Baroness enters halfway through the scene, quite majestically. Louise Plowright can act majestic with the best of them. Tony Adams plays his part just as well as he did before. Although I think a few lines had been cut; because I didn’t notice, and rather missed, his enquiry about “Who makes the laws?” that had been in the earlier version (and it’s corresponding response “She does”). Thankfully they did retain The Baroness’s parting shot of “And mind your language”. I love the shear vocal power with which Louise Plowright delivers that line. Interestingly, the usually loud, Louise Gold had taken a completely different approach with that line, saying it very sweetly. I’m sure that both Gold and Plowright could easily have delivered that line in each other’s styles, they just choose to do it in whatever way they did, and in both instances made it work well. After all they are both good at delivering witty one-liners. However good a line is, it’s only as good as the actor delivering it. But Plowright and Gold are two of the best.
The Roses Of Success performed by Tony Adams, along with the inventors played by Jaymez Denning, Cornelius Clarke, Leo Bidwell, Steven Judkins, Gareth Williams, and, Martin Neeley, was, as far as I can remember, much like before (and in fact I saw Tony Adams and Jaymez Denning in it before). It certainly gives Tony Adams a good opportunity to display his talents. The script got a bit tightened up, which made it less clear, as to quite what happens to the Baronial Car, or how Grandpa ends up thrown in jail. Sufficient to say Caractcus, Truly, and the Children arrive in a deserted town square; The Toymaker, played by Richard Owens rushes on, to hide the children. I couldn’t help noticing that he alone of all the company didn’t use the standard Vulgarian accent. In fact his accent sounded more akin to that great voice-artiste Bernard Cribbins doing a Hungarian accent! That is not a criticism, sometimes actors in this show have their own take on the matter of accents and how that fits in with the way they want to play their character. (After all Louise Gold did her own thing accent-wise at The Palladium). I thought Freddy Lees had been good at establishing his character quickly, but Richard Owens seems even better.
Alvin Stardust sings his big number Kiddy Widdy Winkies with a more menacing voice than Lionel Blair. Though of course he does not dance with the same grace; the choreography looks like it has been somewhat simplified. However, this is just another way of doing the part, and both are good. It might be noted that Alvin Stardust has played the role at The Palladium too. Some very slick scene shifting, and cast movements depicts the children’s capture. Then down into the cellars for the childrens’ ensemble’s big moment, Teamwork. This was done well, though it slightly lacked the power of shear numbers (there being slightly fewer cast than at The Palladium). But this is a provincial tour, so the size of the number fitted in with the size of the theatre; and they all sang with enthusiasm.
So far so good. Now it’s up to Louise Plowright and David Henry, facing the challenge of Chu Chi Face. I’d actually been a bit concerned about how Louise Plowright would fair in this number, because when Louise Gold and Christopher Biggins had done it, Gold brought her Arts Educational training to bear on the role, making it something of a dancing tour de force for The Baroness, and completely overshadowing The Baron. Costume wise the current pair are dressed very similarly to their 2004 Palladium counterparts. The Baroness being in basque and suspenders, with an untied red dressing-gown with black feathers. The costumes may have been the same, but the performance certainly wasn’t. Louise Plowright and David Henry do it very much their own way. For a start it is much more of a team effort, and they concentrate on making it silly, but they sing it both musically and lyrically with greater clarity. Even though Gold’s diction had been by no means bad at The Palladium, Plowright does have the edge on the singing of this number. When Gold and Biggins did it, Biggins was very much in the background, while Gold couldn’t help but be rather graceful. With Plowirght and Henry its more a combined effort, and they emphasis the number’s vulgarity; with Plowright making a comic virtue out of the fact that she is not so much of a dancer (well not in the way that Gold is). Though of course she can dance, and not for nothing did she spend five years singing and dancing her way through such classics as Rich Man’s World in Mamma Mia; Of course being the fine actress that she is, she can do a lot by acting her way through the number (a strength incidentally that she shares with her 2004 counterpart). Louise Gold & Christopher Biggins may have done the number as showing off Arts Ed schooled Ms Gold. But perhaps Louise Plowirght and David Henry’s take on the number is more in keeping with the original, i.e. the way its actually meant to be done. In the end each lady playing the Baroness has done the number in the way that best suits her abilities.
Chu Chi Face concludes, as at The Palladium, with the pair going behind their respective screens to finish getting dressed, with the help of assistants. I noticed when I saw it at The Palladium, The Baroness had a line along the lines of “What is she doing the stupid girl”, referring to the assistant helping her into her dress. Here the assistant was male, and the line was not included. I still wonder whether that line might have been an adlib in the first place. For the different casts of Chitty, The Baroness’s dress for the samba number has varied. The front skirt being longer or shorter. (with the skirt always remaining long at the back) When Louise Gold played the role, the front skirt was particularly short, almost to her knees, showing off her legs. By contrast Louise Plowright is wearing a dress where the front skirt comes down almost to her ankles. I wonder what dictates the costume design, (from the pictures in the programme it seems to be altered each time someone takes over the role). Another change was the absence of the maracas that had been brought out at this point three years ago. I think it doesn’t matter either way whether they are included.
Chu Chi Face can be done comically, and made to work, but what
about The Bombie Samba. Given how Louise Gold had been
such a credit to her Arts Ed training, dominating even the chorus with
her dancing in this number, I was concerned that Louise Plowright might
have problems pulling off this piece. The delightful surprise is just how well
Ms Plowright does it. Yes she Does it! She’s terrific! This vibrant performer
really looks like she’s enjoying the number. And when Louise Plowright
does a number she enjoys the supertrouper simply sparkles; lighting up
the stage with her
Doll On A Music Box/Truly Scrumptious (reprise) emphasises one of the other chief differences between the performances. At The Palladium during this number Scarlet Strallen had outshone everyone else, even Louise Gold! (Which was quite a feat). Though Marissa Dunlop sings well, she does not command the stage in the same way. Thus we actually notice what else is going on in the scene, including Craig McLachan’s counterpoint; We’re particularly aware of The Baron and Baroness’s reactions. Admittedly, without dominating, Louise Plowright has a strong stage presence. She also has a look of amusement on her face, very similar to that of her Donna The Dynamo watching Tanya and Rosie dig the Dancing Queen.
Obviously with a smaller stage the Fight scene was going to be different. I rather missed The Palladium’s useful apron, and, noticed quite a few differences with the choreography, especially concerning The Baroness (who being rather tall and having a strong presence in both cases is very noticeable). Back in 2004, Louise Gold seemed to rely largely on her big strong hands alone. I don’t remember that battle-axe using any props. However in this production one of the Sewer Kids keeps hitting Louise Plowright’s Baroness a prop which looks like a cross between a broom and a lacrosse stick, until she manages to take it off them and use it to defend herself; eventually someone else succeeds in wresting it from her, giving her a few slaps on the behind with it. I wasn’t quite sure what happened to The Baron (as with 2004 it was difficult to look everywhere at once). But I certainly noticed The Baroness getting dragged toward, and being pushed into the cake (from which the sewer kids had emerged). As the drapes came down someone screamed, I couldn’t be sure, but it might have been Louise Plowright’s Baroness. If so, it was shades of her 2004 counterpart (and onetime fellow dynamo)’s current exit as Ms Andrew in Mary Poppins (dragged through a trap door screaming).
Us Two/Chitty Prayer was a joint effort from the two children, Caractucus and Truly enter, having been chased down a dead end by “That creature”, The Childcatcher, who promptly enters disguised as Grandpa. Grandpa himself flies to the rescue aboard Chitty (who has just rescued him). Tony Adams carries this part of the scene with the matter of fact “No I am me”. Various Vulgarians enter, and manage to get The Childcatcher into a net and slung up on a rope. Someone (possibly The Captain) produces a piece of paper and says that the law banning children has now been repealed. I was a bit disappointed that this had been done off-stage, because with the indelibly glorious memory of how Christopher Biggins and Louise Gold had handled that scene of defeat, I would have liked to have seen David Henry and Louise Plowright act it. I’m sure they would have been just as terrific.
The Toymaker and The Company reprise Teamwork, the drapes rise,
to give us The Square, and with the production of a few suitcases The Baron and
Baroness are sent into exile, with The Baroness berating her husband. Louise
Plowright is just as fierce and nasty as her 2004 counterpart. Yet David
Henry’s Baron seems a stronger character, and rather more philosophical, “Well
we may have lost the kingdom, but we’ve still got each other”. The Sewer
kids are now clearly reunited with their respective families (something I
hadn’t noticed before), as The Toymaker (who is related to Toby) says “We’re
back together again”. So their job done Caractacus, Truly, Grandpa, Jeremy
and Jemima climb aboard Chitty and Chitty Flies Home. In front of
the drapes we hear a loud off-stage voice vowing revenge, was it Louise or was
In fact what of the cast. Well the main ensemble, consisting of: Daniel Boyle, Chantelle Carey, Nick Crossley, Katie-Jane Derbyshire, Stuart King, Hilary Lang, Lee Marriner, Carl Patrick Morris, Kimberley Payne, Dane Quixall, Lisa Richie, Alexa-Jane Robinson, Sebastian Rose, Daniel Sharpe, Frankie Sibthorp, and, Grace Warner all do a good job, and I thought they danced rather well, better in fact than their 2004 Palladium counterparts. Some of their costumes weren’t quite a good, though. Meanwhile out of the children’s ensemble; I wasn’t sure which of the three possible ones it was, were they: Niamh Coombes, Brad Harey, Helen Jenkins, Rebecca Peppiatt, Chloe Proffitt, Toby Prynne, Francesca Reed, Ben Rossiter, Hannah Scott, Jordan Vince, and, Cameron Wishart; or: Jordan Bosher, Callum Cook, Lauren Hinsley, Jake Howlett, Chloe Jones, Courtney Layton, Eddie Manning, Katy Routlege, Megan Spiers, Zac Watts, and, Ella Williams; or: Daniel John Eagle, Charlie Ellison, Caroline Elphick, Natalie Ertl, Annabelle Goode, Jordan Hull, Oliver Slee, Faith Smales, Harry Stykes, Marie Ray Trotter, and, Bethany Tyler. But whichever team it was they did a good job, and if somewhat lacking the size of ensemble at The Palladium, made up for it with enthusiasm. The whole lot and the orchestra is under the musical direction of Greg Arrowsmith, who has been with the show since The Palladium, so naturally that is up to standard. The radio miking too is pretty satisfactory, not too noticeable. The Car of course is the star of the show. Having been touring for sometime perhaps the automation crew know their job. Anyway, tonight it worked just fine, exactly as it is supposed to. Here in Southampton it flies around the stage, looking quite magnificent, but not into the audience as it did at The Palladium, well this is a smaller theatre. At lot of the audience were very impressed by it. It is quite spectacular, and it worked. However, I was concentrating more on the performances of the actors.
As for the principals, well: I had actually seen Tony Adams at The Palladium. And he was just as good as I remembered. He brings a wealth of experience as a song-and-dance man to his role, and engages with the audience. Alvin Stardust had also played The Childcatcher at The Palladium, though I saw Lionel Blair. The two performances are quite different, because Blair is primarily a dancer, whereas Stardust focuses on his singing. Nevertheless both are equally effective, just different. A theme that would come up time and time again comparing these two casts.
I think (from their pictures in the programme) that Jeremy and Jemima were played by Fraser Jenkins and Katie Reynolds. I didn’t think Katie Reynolds quite as memorable as Isabel Wroe-Wright. But then it was obvious that Isabel Wroe-Wright may well be a notable actress in the making. Generally the two children were good, and well matched, they were very much a pair, which as they are supposed to be playing twins is no bad thing. They are one of the show’s three double acts. Another being the two spies Boris and Goran. While Richard Long and Christopher Ryan had been good-enough Jaymez Denning and Cornelius Clarke do it better. They make a good double act, much in the style of James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn. Well I think they’d make wonderful Kiss Me Kate gangsters. Similarly good though Freddy Lees had been, I was just that bit more impressed with Richard Owen’s Toymaker, and found his alternative accent interesting. If there is any one human principal in this show - well we all know there car’s the star – then it has to be Caractacus. Craig McLachlan does a good job. His Australian accent doesn’t quite fit the character of a British inventor. But somehow this didn’t seem to matter too much. I don’t think he dances as well as Gary Wilmot did. However, he successfully incorporates any weaknesses in his performance into his character. That too is a running theme in this production. It’s such a silly musical, the actors have the freedom to make their weaknesses part of their characters, and it doesn’t matter. He has the advantage, over Gary Wilmot, of not being overshadowed by his Truly. It has to be said that as Truly Scrumptious Marissa Dunlop does not have Scarlet Strallen’s stage presence. However, in a way by having less presence she is actually more convincing as the character. After all, is Truly really meant to dominate the show, and overshadow Caractacus, as much as Scarlet did? (It is perhaps a similar thing to comparing Julie Atherton and Amanda Salmon as Sophie in Mamma Mia. Julie was the more likeable but Amanda was more convincing as the character itself). This is yet another running theme to this production, some of the performances while quite different to their 2004 Palladium counterparts might in fact be closer to the way the roles are meant to be played, if indeed there is a set way of playing these roles, which there isn’t.
All three running themes very much come together in the roles of Baron and Baroness Bomeburst. David Henry is as worthy follower to Christopher Biggins. In many ways he’s actually an improvement, as I get the impression that he takes the part more seriously; bringing a seriousness to the role, whereas Biggins played the character as more of a buffoon. David Henry certainly makes more of an impact that Biggins did, I couldn’t quite work out whether that was the result of the actors’ own performance or that of the co-stars they were paired up with. David Henry really makes a great team with Louise Plowright, she’s always at her best when she’s got a sparring partner to bounce off, and he provides her with that foil. He had done a decent job in several small roles at The Palladium in 2004, tonight he proves well deserving of his promotion to a major role. The Baron and Baroness’s relationship comes across differently. When Gold and Biggins did it the Baroness came across as rather a power-mad despot, who might have married the Baron for status or power; and was a power behind the throne. Whereas Louise Plowright and David Henry present the pair as having a more equal relationship, the power in the kingdom being shared between them. This difference is only in part due to the staging. Much of it comes from the performers themselves.
Best of all it’s a real treat
to see supertrouper Louise Plowright as The Baroness. After the sadness
of watching her stuck in the grime of
a not-very-good musical in
the last seven years, Louise Plowright and Louise Gold seem to be
developing a tendency to follow each other into roles. This is the third role
they’ve both done! First, in 2000 Gold followed Plowright by taking over Tanya
in Mamma Mia (- Gold claimed to have “improved” that part,
which Plowright herself originated). Meanwhile in the same show Plowright
proved herself every inch a Leading Lady (promoted, by taking over Siobahn
McCarthy’s role of Donna). In 2002 Gold played Phyllis in a big revival of Follies
(complete with the number Lucy And Jesse), in 2006 Plowright made
that role her own in a regional revival. Then in 2004 Gold took-over Baroness
Bomeburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and played it in her own
peculiar way, and now in 2007, Plowright too has now scored her own triumph on
that role. Given her extraordinary abilities to make a part so absolutely hers,
no matter who has done it before her, I think someone should consider trying Louise
Plowright in the triple-role that Louise Gold originated in
Overall, how does Chitty
Chitty Bang Bang compare to when I saw it at The London Palladium in
2004. Well generally it does. The directors, be it Adrian Noble with
Jo Davis and or Edward Goggin with Catie Marie Entwhistle, or
possibly the choreographers Gillian Lynne and Frank Thompson,
appear to have been tinkering with the staging. Similarly the book has also
been tinkered with, whether that was by the directors or the writers
Off Site Links:
To read my review of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at The London Palladium in 2004, please click here.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Official Site: http://www.chittythemusical.co.uk/frame.htm