Today I’m handing my blog over to best friend, editor, and fellow theatre fan, Jane. She and I spent the weekend in Birmingham. One of the things we did was go to the B’ham Hippodrome to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here’s her report:
When my best friend Geri suggested she publish my report about my latest theatre experience on her blog, I was flattered and delighted. I then spent ages staring at a blank page. It’s all very well writing for my own pleasure and to please a few friends – but writing for an audience that doesn’t know me!? Eek – that’s scary.
Don’t be daft. You’re great! — Geri.
Let me start my coming clean. I am a huge fan of Lee Mead (the musical theatre performer who won Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV search to find a leading man for his West End revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat) and I go to see him on stage at every opportunity I get. Why do I admire him so much? I could fill Geri’s blog explaining.* Best just to spin on…
*Or I could just show you this. G. –>
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Birmingham Hippodrome. 17th and 18th of September. Lee’s final performances as Caractacus Potts in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production.
I’ve been longing for Geri to see this show with me since I first saw it in Nottingham. I was sure she would love it! The role is absolutely perfect for Lee – and as for the rest of the cast, the set, the effects, the music, and the orchestra – there is nothing about this production I can’t praise.
We had a few friends joining us for the Saturday night show. Geri had flown from Ireland for the occasion, but the others also had longish journeys from various parts of the UK.
I had got all of us tickets for the front two rows. Being at the extreme left of the auditorium they were listed as “potentially restricted view”, but the alternative was to get seats in the centre of row J. I know, I know. Most theatre-goers would think central row J seats fantastic, but when I go to see Lee I want to be as near to the stage as possible, simply because I am short and don’t like running the risk of having a tall person in front of me. It’s nothing to do with wanting to see Lee up close. No not at all. (Am I convincing, Geri?).
No comment. G.
One great shame was that one of our gang was too poorly to join us. A fan from New York, who would otherwise have been seating in centre row J, (See! I’m not the only one who likes to get CLOSE) took her vacant seat.
The house lights dimmed – the overture started…
Do you ever get anxious when you organise a trip to see a show? Even if you know nothing about it; even if all your mates are willing to ‘give it a try’, you can feel absurdly responsible for what’s happening on stage. If the show sucks you might find yourself apologising profusely. “Oh I’m so sorry – the reviews were glowing”.
When you have been raving about a show for five months, it bloomin’ well is your fault if you’ve raised your friends’ expectations.
No surprise then that I cast a few sideways glances at Geri as the show began. Was that a smile? Is she tapping her foot?
On came Lee, our congenial leading man, all flashing eyes and bouncing curls, looking decidedly handsome in his pre-Great War costume. When he sang his first song Teamwork, I was pleased to hear him in fine voice, unfaltering in tone — which is quite an achievement as he has to manhandle the wreck of a racing car around the stage as he’s singing.
Lee’s fans were highly excited when he got this part. OK, so he’d be taking on a role made famous by no lesser performer than Dick Van Dyke, which is a huge ask. We reckoned he’d be the perfect eccentric daddy. We’d seen his adorable affinity with child actors in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but his rapport with his on-stage offspring in this was remarkable.
Child actors can sometimes be less than convincing, but all the kids I have seen playing Jemima and Jeremy in this production have been excellent. That night’s Jeremy, with mop of dark wavy hair, might have a mini-Mead. My favourite little lady Lucy Sherman was on that night, too. I love her reactions and her comedic timing. That lass is one to watch!
Andy Hockley’s endearing Grandpa completed the Potts family. Oh no… Not quite! I’m forgetting Edison, the robot dog with his spatula ears and cute little hearth brush tail. Awww!
Carrie Hope Fletcher played love-interest Truly Scrumptious throughout Lee’s run. I hadn’t heard of her before she joined the cast of Chitty but I’ll be keeping an eye out for whatever she does next. She’s a strong singer and a highly competent actress. She made a great foil for Lee’s Caractacus. They seemed to really enjoy their stage time together. That was evident on Saturday during Toot Sweets when certain of the sweets were less ‘tooty’ than usual and the two leads got the giggles.
The stage production doesn’t slavishly follow the film . Truly, for instance, is a much more feisty character than her screen counterpart, and the two Vulgarian spies (the Vulgarians are the bad guys in case you didn’t know) have been given much more to do – including their own song, Act English. It’s the funniest in the show and shamelessly milked for laughs by Sam Harrison and Scott Paige who are simply delightful.
But it’s the tender lullaby Hushabye Mountain that provides my favourite moment of the show. The scene starts with the most touching exchange between daddy and the kids, where they offer to sell their ‘treasures’ for him, which leads into a song of heartbreaking beauty which had the audience spellbound. Lee’s voice ebbed and flowed like the waves he sang of, rising and falling, and washing in so much emotion.
None of us Lee fans had any doubt that his Hushabye Mountain would be perfect, but that wasn’t the case for Me Ol Bamboo. Lee has always said that he can’t dance, and while we always thought he could dance a bit, he now had to tackle Van Dyke’s iconic dance routine. How would he manage?
Well..that night, we couldn’t tell. This was the real disadvantage of our “restricted view seats” – the ensemble obscured him from our view. Oh well. I just had to hope that the seats I had bought for the next day’s show would give Geri a better view.
Yes, we went twice. For research, you understand. And yes, Lee CAN dance! — G.
Of course, everyone in the audience was waiting for the eponymous heroine (yes. HEROINE. Chitty is FEMALE! ) and she didn’t disappoint. The back-projection cleverly brought her journey as she trundled through the English countryside to life. “Oh you pretty Chitty Bang Bang…” A glance at Geri. Yes – that’s definitely a smile and… is she mouthing the words? I think so!
I’d no need to check on my friends sat behind me to see if they were enjoying themselves. Their whooping and cheering made their enjoyment quite obvious – especially when Chitty’s floats popped out so the family and Truly could escape over the water from the Vulgarian bad guys.
But the biggest cheer came when Chitty sprouted wings and soared above the stage. Oh, my, Lee and Carrie’s voice swelling in a triumphant chorus “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we love you”. Around me the audience erupted into cheers, and as the curtain fell I turned to Geri.
Oh yeah! Going by her enormous Cheshire Cat grin, I think she liked it!
But would the second half live up to the first? It’s much shorter, and with the exception of Chu-Chi Face and Doll on a Music Box the best known songs come in the first half of the show…
But on the other hand, perhaps the most iconic character has his big scene in after the interval. The Child Catcher of the film still gives many adults I know the heebie-jeebies, and Matt Gillett’s smirking, grey-faced gothic-horror monster had the audience booing and hissing (and in the case of some of the younger audience members hiding behind mummy). (Not all of them were that young! — G.) I spoke to Matt at the stage door once (and I might just mention that under that ‘orrible make-up he’s a very good looking young man plus a real sweetie) and he told me that he loves the booing; it means he’s doing his job right.
I’m not a big fan of Chu-Chi Face. I’m not sure why. It’s a pleasant tune – an earworm in fact (AAARRGGHH! It’s stuck in my head now!!), perhaps it’s the saccharine lyrics as sung by a couple that don’t seem to be getting on that well. But it’s the Baron’s only chance to sing, so I ought not to begrudge him.
Phil Jupitus and Claire Sweeney were Baron and Baroness by the time the tour got to Birmingham. Up to then I had only seen Shaun Williamson and Michelle Collins in the roles. It was interesting to see two completely different takes on each. Phil gives a more mercurial performance – courting the audience’s sympathies for the imagined slights he perceives. But I kinda preferred Shaun’s stroppy tantrums. I didn’t want to feel sympathy for the Baron, thank you.
Of the two Baronesses I can’t say which is my favorite. They have very different strengths. Though I will say Phil and Clare’s Chu-Chi Face had one moment I thought WAY too adult for a kiddies show. Or perhaps I just have a dirty mind. Hmm probably that’s the case.*
*Nope, it isn’t. — G.
She gets the second half’s big number Bombay Samba. It’s not a song from the film but it’s enormous fun and gives the ensemble another chance to show off their dancing skills – while wearing some pretty flashy costumes.
Oh I mustn’t forget to mention Ewan Cummins who plays both Mr Coggins the Junkyard Man and The Toymaker with such endearing gentleness in both roles.
Carrie and Lee both have their moments in the second half: Carrie with the ballad Lovely Lonely Man, and Lee leading Carrie and the children’s chorus in Teamwork. But both those are just hors d’oerves for the main course – Doll on a Music Box and the reprise of Truly Scrumptious. Carrie’s doll dance was charming, her movements perfectly portraying the clockwork automaton.
Err…but…err Geri had to take my word for it. (Sorry, sorry Geri! Those were the best seats I could get honest.) We just couldn’t see her from our seats.
On the other hand there was lots we could see – Lee’s dancing clown doll for instance. Oh yes Geri’s grin was back for that one! And then he gets to sing Truly Scrumptious back to her. Sniff! How Carrie and Lee manage to imbue the scene with such romance when dressed in such ridiculous costumes I don’t know. But they do. And it’s wonderful.
And so onto the happy ending – Chitty flies in helping to save the day and our leading man and leading lady share the mandatory final kiss. All is well again… Oh sorry – was that a spoiler?
All that’s remains is a final reprise of the famous title song and to wave off the car as it flies way above the stage and to cheer all the wonderful performers.
Except for Matt the Child Catcher.
He gets booed.
But that’s OK. He likes it.
Although Lee has left the show to tour with his new album Some Enchanted Evening, Chitty continues to travel around the UK and Ireland. Ticket information can be found here. — G.