Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Music and lyrics by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman; adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams, based on the MGM/United Artists motion picture, from the story by Ian Fleming
Sunderland Empire Theatre and touring

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If you're not going to do a panto at Christmas - and for the second year in succession the Sunderland Empire isn't - then a family show is a must, and family shows don't come better than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The excitement before the curtain went up was palpable, with cheers greeting the arrival of the conductor, and the clapping along to the music was in full swing almost by the second bar of the overture.

There were cheers and there were boos; there were "oohs" and "ahs". The audience involvement was total.

Of course, what the show is best known for, the thing that everyone mentions, is the flying car, and it is certainly impressive (even though the touring version doesn't fly out over the audience), as are all the scenery, costumes and effects, but they are just the icing on the cake, for what impressed me was the performances. This is the show's first stop on its very long national tour and this performance was the official opening (although it has been previewing since Friday 9th December), but the company are already well settled into their roles.

It is hard - indeed, it would be wrong - to pick out individuals but many people want to know how Tim Flavin stacks up against Michael Ball. The bad news for such is that I can't tell them: I never saw Ball in the show. I have to say, however, that he couldn't have been better than Flavin whose Caractacus Potts was engaging, very sympathetic and had the audience loving him from the moment he appeared. He was well matched by Marissa Dunlop as Truly Scrumptious, and well supported by his "father", Paul Greenwood.

Comic "baddies" Robert Traynor (Boris - and Doris) and Nigel Garton (Goran - and Gordon) camped up their performances beautifully, and, with a number of their scenes being played in front of a front cloth, helped give the show a pantomime atmosphere, which helped sweep the audience along.

Sean Blowers' Baron Bomburst was delightfully petulant - was this really the Sub-Officer John Hallam of London's Burning whose on-screen death moved a nation to tears? It was, and it is a measure of the versatility of the man that we forgot all that and simply rejoiced in his performance. As for Baroness Bomburst, Jane Gurnett was wonderfully over the top in every way. For an actress with any pretensions to comedy, it's a part to kill for and Gurnett took it by the throat and wrung every last laugh out of it. And I loved "Chu-Chi Face"!

Another gift of a part, of course, is the Child Catcher and Robin Askwith was deliciously evil. It's a pity that he doesn't have more to do. I could see him standing stage left winding up the audience to a frenzy of hatred - but it isn't a panto!

I could go on: the ensemble, the smaller parts, the juvenile ensemble, the dogs (aaah!), but mention must be made of local nine-year-olds Leyci Wightman (Jemima) and Tom Hunter (Jeremy) who were so polished and professional.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has already broken all box office records at the Empire and will, I suspect, do so at all its tour venues. It deserves to, for it is spectacular, beautiful to look at, superbly performed and appeals right across the generations. And yes, it has a pantomime feel about it, so Sunderland audiences had the best of both worlds!

The show runs at Sunderland Empire until 4th March, before moving on to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinbugh, Bristol and Southampton, where the tour ends on 15th September, 2007.

David Chadderton reviewed the production, with a slightly different cast, in Manchester

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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