Brighton Year-Round 2019
Directed by Michael Burnie with musical direction by Carl Greenwood, choreography by Jodie Michele, with Jo Barnes Assistant and Youth Cast MD. Lighting and set staging in collaboration with Theatre Royal and members of the company.
When was the last time a cast of over 100 plus graced and squeezed into Theatre Royal’s stage? The Sherman Brothers 1968 musical of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang staged by Jeremy Sams enjoys a prolonged 50th; never more so than this astonishingly fine production by Brighton Theatre Group.
The overture and first numbers remind us how strong the musical material is, and though they added a few more for the stage, the high hit-rate of the Sherman brothers songs is remarkable. The orchestral playing and choral singing as well as panache of individuals is superb. They’re tangy and unafraid.
Many of us might recall from the film how this evergreen tale of Edwardian neverland never palls. It’s where poor inventor Caractacus Potts (Rob Platt) strikes gold with a hair-cutting invention by accident (better for Ashley Wolfendale’s – whisper it – ‘Mr Matthews’ turkeys, plucking and roasting in one). Selling it for 30 shillings Caractacus rescues the eponymous broken-down car to the delight of his children Jeremy (James Kiley) and Jemima (Florence Hett) and sets about transforming it. Kiley and Hett are superb, fully deserving the accolades their alternates received the night before.
‘You Two’ with Platt leading is winningly done with the children, and again their panache and professionalism is what you expect from professionals. ‘You Three’ is ‘Grandpa’ Steve Emery’s own echo of the same material. Oh he’s also called Caractacus Potts and it won’t help him at all. Similarly the magical ‘Hushabye Mountain’ shows Platt’s range: confiding and intimate as well as heroic. Platt’s ability to draw sweetness is wrought in his vocal projection.
After a few run-ins, finally with her motorcycle’s gasket, Caractacus wins the heart of Truly Scrumptious (Hannah Spicer-Williams), daughter of the sweet magnate after nearly selling Toot Sweets to her father (Tim Ingram, later the Baron), upset by a sudden spurt of dogs (yes real ones, all very cute).
Spicer-Williams possesses like Platt an attractive sweet-toned voice that exudes a cushioned warmth with rock-solid intonation. She uses it to memorable effect, after the mutual love-in of ‘Truly Scrumptious’ where she sings with Jemima and Jeremy. First there’s ‘Lovely, Lonely Man’ a so-so addition from Act Two, but later again in her ‘Doll on a Music Box’ Spicer-Williams gets a number worthy of her. It’s a virtuoso pointillistic number with dotted rhythms and nowhere to hide. She certainly doesn’t need to.
‘Toot Sweet’ is another massive ensemble winner, and the optics of this piece with its backdrops and huge onstage grouping is the first of the big-choreograph numbers. Later another couple of very different numbers: ‘Me Ol’ Bamboo’ led by Platt and Emery’s ‘POSH’ with the children almost stupefy with the number of good tunes that have lodged in many of us since childhood. Emery’s dark baritone is another of those vocal delights you shouldn’t take for granted. Everything is so solid though, you simply relax
And there’s the Vulgarian spies (Graeme Muncer, Jamie Collins, uproariously rude and fine in ‘Act English’) who after several attempts capture Emery’s ‘Grandpa’ the inventors’ father by mistake since they share a name, and make him work for Vulgaria.
Muncer and Collins not only have to sing but characterize their way through thickets of gags like ‘number two?’ ‘here?’ and soon and more risqué spotted dick ones. There’s a layer children will get and there’s some adult humour broadly hinted at. Which children will get.
Whereupon the picnicking quartet (Truly bonding after a Vulgarian ship fires on them by the Sussex seaside) set off in pursuit: cue Chitty’s hitherto-unsuspected flying gifts straight off Beachy Head. We know she’s a magic car responding to ‘please’ but even her renovator hadn’t quite bargained on that. End of Act One, where the lighting’s as spectacular a the effects, in particular evoking seashore lights and the darkened car…
Only to discover from the Toy Maker (the vocally appealing Paul Charlton) Vulgaria’s a place where children are banned and inventors locked up by a paradoxically childish Baron Bomburst (Ingram) and his child-hating Baroness (Emma Lindfield, also Lord Scumptious’ nasty PA earlier). They’re both horribly good at saccharine and in ‘Chu-Chi Face’ and ‘Bombie Samba’ let you know just how.
And there’s a rescue of more than the two children from Hayden Cheyne’s wickedly OTT Child-Catcher (they’re led astray by promises of ice-cream). 24 in fact. That’s when children hidden in sewers by the Toy maker rise up with Caractacus II and Truly who lead a revolution (with the quite good though not top-drawer ‘Teamwork’ number) with the disguised Caractacus and Truly, who leads off with one of the best songs ’Doll On a Music Box’ beautifully counterpointed by Platt and Spicer-Williams.
Grandpa decides after all to stay on with new inventor chums Zak Craig, Alex Emery, Jonah Mitchell, Matt Wells, earlier memorable with their ‘Roses of Success’ number.
Is the word amateur used? This production beats most touring musicals. Standards are phenomenally high, including staging. Directed with crisp élan by Michael Burnie and with consummate musical direction by Carl Greenwood and his band, the all-important choreography’s by Jodie Michele, with Jo Barnes Assistant and Youth Cast MD.
To choreograph routines of such numbers with countermarching and complex routines is extraordinary. There’s one involving soldiers, a tiny detail of a routine where two by two they switch along a crocodile (led by Gareth Ashley and Wolfendale again), and counter-march two-deep, though differently. Lighting and set staging in collaboration with Theatre Royal and members of the company is exemplary. Lighting in particular proves striking, shady moments of atmospheric night melds with deployment of dry ice. It’s a pity these aren’t credited.
Though costumes and the all-important Chitty car have been hired, there’s a vivid overall rationale with a range of costumes (veering to purple violet and fuschia) and backdrops with one all-important video projection.
There’s some wonderful effects and the detail’s ravishing. Many of the film’s tropes are taken and it’s luxury costuming to see the car ‘zoom’ past runners a cluster of ‘Votes For Women’ feminists and others, and repeat the same. The 20 dancers as well as 24 ensemble run through all kinds of costume and routines.
It’s the non-stop detail with consistently high standards that renders this show special. It couldn’t be done any better and puts several touring shows to shame. Though it’s had runs elsewhere, as booking’s tight don’t even hesitate.