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Chitty hits west end with 8m pound bang

THE FIRST stage musical of the children's film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened last night in one of the most lavish productions seen on the West End stage in years.

Advance ticket sales have already passed the pounds 8m mark for a musical whose true star is the pounds 750,000 car of the title, which is designed to soar over the London Palladium stalls.

Emma Williams, an 18-year-old unknown actress from Halifax, West Yorkshire, plays the leading role of Truly Scrumptious, with the singer Michael Ball playing the eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts, played by Dick van Dyke in the film version.

Nichola McAuliffe, Anton Rodgers and Brian Blessed play baddies with Richard O'Brien, famous for writing and starring in The Rocky Horror Show, taking the devilish role of the Child Catcher.

For the opening last night, stars of the original, including Sally Ann Howes, who played Truly Scrumptious, and Anna Quayle, who played the baroness, were in the audience to give their verdict. The stage adaptation was the idea of Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby Broccoli, the film producer most famous for the James Bond films.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was, like the James Bond films, from a book by Ian Fleming, adapted by the children's author Roald Dahl. And even the miraculous car that transports Potts and his family to the faraway kingdom of Vulgaria has a touch of the James Bond about it.

The show has cost pounds 6.2m to stage, six times as much as the film made at Pinewood 35 years ago. Even so, the production has received almost as much attention for the involvement of its director, Adrian Noble.

Noble took leave from running the Royal Shakespeare Company to direct the show, a decision likely to make him a fortune, but one which infuriated critics of his proposed changes to the running of the RSC. There have been some changes to the new version.

The score for the film was written by American brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, who have updated it for the musical. "There were a lot of potentials in the film version that were not totally realised,"Robert Sherman has said.

The musical features new incidental music and numbers to go with the old favourites such as "Truly Scrumptious", "Toot Sweets" and "Hushabye Mountain".

Whatever the critics say, the result is likely to be popular with children. With Starlight Express gone and Cats due to close next month, there will be few child-friendly shows in the West End. Only The Lion King remains as a serious rival.

Gillian Lynne, the choreographer who also worked on Cats, is convinced Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be a hit. "We have to face the fact after 11 September, life isn't the same, and we need something carefree and innocent to relax with," she said.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will need to keep pulling the crowds. Although the Palladium holds 2,000 people, a spokesman warned that the running costs were so huge that it has not yet broken even despite the advance sales.

Louise Jury Media Correspondent, `Chitty' comes to the West End with pounds 8m bang. , Independent, 04-17-2002, pp 7.

The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996