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Hitty Hitty Bang Bang

No doubt about it: the car's a star! A superstar in fact. It cost pounds 6million to stage Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium - a staggering amount in West End theatre terms. But just to see that amazing flying automobile was worth every penny as far as the ecstatic first night crowd were concerned.

A glittering contraption of gold, glass and varnished wood, it defies both belief and gravity. I am tempted to say it "literally" flies - with four passengers on board - this extraordinary theatrical vehicle appears to soar through the air.

The sell-out audience gasps while I - your cynical critic - strained to work out how on earth the thing got off the ground. And for most of this breathtaking two-and-a-half hour spectacular I remained in a state of awe-struck confusion. Right at the end, I finally spotted the secret. But I'll wager I was one of the very few who did. And it would be churlish to complain.

As is common in the musical format, some of the drama veered towards the pantomime but when the action showed the merest hint of dragging, up popped Chitty and there we all were - back in a childlike world of magic. This was not an event I came to with enthusiasm. Never having seen anyone burst into spontaneous song in my entire life, I have failed to take to the musical and its necessary air of unreality. But this exuberant, lavish, almost unbelievable festival of fun was irresistible. Like a tidal wave, it engulfs you and carries you along at breakneck speed. It is a winner through and through.

To coin a phrase, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a sure-fire hit. Michael Ball is the large cast's only genuinely impressive singer who in the lead role as Caractacus Potts takes his children Jemima (Lauren Morgan) and Jeremy (Harry Smith) on the adventure. But the marvellously simple songs of Richard and Robert Sherman - the duo who also penned the songs for Mary Poppins - don't require operatic talent. Which is just as well for leading lady Emma Williams, who looks great as the revoltingly named Truly Scrumptious but barely seems to be able to hit her notes.

Veteran TV sitcom star Anton Rodgers (Grandpa Potts) does not emerge as the new Pavarotti - but every comedy-packed number he delivers had the crowd in stitches. Brian Blessed whose famous baritone voice seems to recede deeper into his throat with every performance, hammed it up as the absurdly evil Baron Bomburst. He is very funny - but it is typical Blessed and he could have done it in his sleep.

Just out of Coronation Street, Nichola McAuliffe was a revelation as Baroness Bomburst. Hilarious from start to finish, she stole all the laughs. And, behind Ball, she is definitely the show's second best singer. This grotesque duo's wittily named King of Vulgaria has a total ban on children.

Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien is excellent as the dastardly Childcatcher whose reign of terror has forced all the Vulgar kids to seek refuge in the sewers. He is also hindered by the Toymaker (Edward Petherbridge) who helps to hide the children When this roller-coaster of a musical first starts, it's hard to see where all the money went.

But with each successive scene this extravaganza exudes more of its unprecedented expensiveness. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has been brought to the West End by Eon Productions - which owns the rights to the works of James Bond author Ian Fleming . Fleming wrote Chitty for his son in 1964 and it oozes a kind of post- Nazi political satire.

It's a kind of junior 007 complete with heroes, villains and evil dictators whose vile regimes cannot last.

Many an expert eyebrow has been raised at Eon's massive financial investment. Others have groaned at the prospects of yet another stage version of a hit movie.

But if anything can rise above the malaise of non-attendance afflicting the London theatre, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is it. And...oh what a car!

KEVIN O'SULLIVAN, LAST NIGHT'S FIRST NIGHT: Hitty Hitty Bang Bang. , The Mirror, 04-17-2002, pp 15.



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The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996