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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang review at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds – ‘perfect’

Jon Robyns (centre), Harry Grasby and Lucy Sherman in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Photo: Alastair Muir Jon Robyns (centre), Harry Grasby and Lucy Sherman in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Photo: Alastair Muir
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Despite its box office appeal, when this film-to-stage musical opened at the London Palladium in 2002 starring Michael Ball, followed by an uninspiring touring production, there seemed to be a critical consensus: the show was okay, but the car was the real star.

In James Brining’s consistently superior new version (the first restaging since the original production), freshly choreographed by Stephen Mears, both the car and the show shine as never before, with glowing performances all round and rousing orchestral arrangements of the Sherman brothers’ catchy score.

It all looks and feels as if it has been lovingly reinvented by the team, rather like Grandpa Potts’ remark about his son’s invention of the high-flying Chitty: “Everyone has worked night and day, perfecting every little detail.”

Two of many small but striking new details are the way in which Brining immediately draws the audience into a post-Edwardian world of childhood, then later, how the car becomes not only a winged wonder but a catalyst for healing the broken Potts household – a sort of four-fendered family jalopy uniting the widowed Caractacus, his young children, Jeremy and Jemima, and the independently minded motorcycle riding Truly Scrumptious.

And two major song changes for the better are the inclusion of Lonely Lonely Man, Truly’s emotionally affecting number from the film which was cut from the Palladium production, and the deletion of the Child Catcher’s Kiddy-Widdy-Winkies, the other-wordly song written for the first stage version but which probably holds up the fast-flowing action here.

The introduction of First World War motifs also make more sense of Grandpa Potts’ military fixation, while there are hints of Kaiser-bashing in the crackpot Vulgarians’ attempts to requisition the all-British Chitty.

Mears’ choreographic input drives the production along at every level and goes a long way towards overcoming a rather saggy second act plot development: an extraordinary reworking of Me Ol’ Bamboo is a clog-hopping wonder; The Bombie Samba is scorching enough to burn the stage; Teamwork, involving a beautifully drilled troupe of lost kids, is so stirring you want to join them in the battle against the anti-children Vulgarians.

Simon Higlett’s design concept is fluid too, seamlessly merging Simon Wainwright’s hand-drawn video graphics with the physical setting and live action on stage, which helps create the illusion of Chitty’s seaborne and airborne powers.

Led by Jon Robyns as a Caractacus and Amy Griffiths as Truly Scrumptious, the principals and ensemble deliver well-defined and suitably vibrant characters, especially the two child actors playing Jeremy and Jemima – Harry Grasby and Lucy Sherman at this performance, but the alternate youngsters are no doubt just as assured – in a show that will be hitting the road throughout 2016 and is indeed perfect entertainment in every detail.

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A family favourite reinvented with smart direction, stylish design, immaculate choreography and spot-on performances