Warning: This production uses strobes.
With a splutter and a bang, a whirr, many consecutive explosive pops and a roar, the little car ripples, eventually, into life and it’s got enough heart and soul for a whole family, complete with wings and fins, as the need prevails. This is the broad premise of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr, which is currently being staged at the People’s Theatre.
Written in 1964 – and magicked onto the silver screen just four years later with a screenplay by Roald Dahl and performances by Dick van Dyke and Benny Hill – the work is a madcap adventure of opportunities lost and won, inventions which all fail until they succeed, complicated subterfuges and one in which the baddies get their deserts, and then some. It’s also replete with tunes that will have your sproglets singing along with rhythmic abandon, all the way home.
Having said all of that, the staging of this production is an interesting choice for a South African children’s theatre at the end of 2019. It’s a work which is peppered with British slang of the 1950s, such as the expletive “poppy cock!” and references to the Second World War, from costume choices to nuances in language, and behaviour. On certain levels, it evokes the kind of humour that kept outfits like Spike Jones and the City Slickers popular, with things like fart jokes about Hitler. This is not directly an anti-Hitler trope, but one in which the fictional European country of Vulgaria is set up as the collective baddie.
Led by a Baron (Matthew Otto) and a Baroness (Joëlle Rochecouste), Vulgaria, is as its name indicates. The performers’ take on these characters is completely delightful in their oafishness, evil stupidity and grotesque physicality. While much of the nuances of these greedy awful despots might slip the ken of the littlies in the audiences, they are funny and nasty and revolting in a manner that evokes Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films of the ilk of Goldmember.
This work comprises a large contingent of child performers, and generally they are curated well. Admittedly, the children of Caractacus Potts, the main character, played by Monde Sibisi, seemed to be having a bit of a manic time on the performance under review here. Jemima (Montana Lever) seemed very stressed, even though she was in good voice when her face-mic worked, and her stage brother Jeremy (Henrique Neves) overcompensated for this by smiling inordinately and all the time. While the ensemble doesn’t always manage itself well in elements such as the Morris Dance sequence, the ensemble itself is cast into lovely relief by the littlest and youngest of them all. Whether 8-year-old Ntsako Mtombeni was mouthing or singing every single lyric in this show becomes academic. This little girl has the kind of showbiz stage presence and confidence that makes you want to fast forward yourself into her stage audiences in the future.
And yes, as is the wont of plays in this theatre, there is a lot of havoc on stage and off. It’s havoc that bursts into muddy confusion with the use of strobes, sound design that doesn’t always give you the lyrics with clarity and lots of running about the auditorium. However, with the basic lines of the tale roughly in place, it’s a rip-roaring adventure that your child might love for its sheer and unabashed sense of spectacle.
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr is directed by Jill Girard and Keith Smith, written by Ian Fleming and adapted for stage by Jeremy Sams, with music and lyrics by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman. It is performed by Caroline Borole, Matthew Otto, Roberto Queiroz, Joëlle Rochecouste, Monde Sibisi, Raymond Skinner and Luciano Zuppa, and a child cast featuring Erin Atkins, Keren Fine, Sasha Goldberg, Salma Hassen, Liyema Hogana, Montana Lever, Lilitha Mboule, Kwanda Mtombeni, Ntsako Mtombeni, Nyeleti Mtombeni, Leora Myers, Asande Mzizi, Henrique Neves, Chidera Nwoha, Kiese Nxumalo, Phillip Orlando, Mia Sartini-Kruger, Simphiwe Tshabalala, Tali-Rose Zidel and Slondiwe Zondo. It features design by Sandy Dyer (musical staging), Coenraad Rall (musical direction), Grant Knottenbelt (lighting, set and audio-visual), Liam McGregor (sound) and Sean McGrath and Merry Whillier (costumes). It is stage-managed by Sizo Tshabalala and Simphiwe Zungu, and performs at the People’s Theatre in Braamfontein until December 22.
- This review is premised on a performance featuring the following children: Henrique Neves (Jeremy) and Montana Lever (Jemima); and Erin Atkins, Lilitha Mboule, Kwanda Mtombeni, Ntsako Mtombeni, Nyeleti Mtombeni, Asande Mzizi, Kiese Nxumalo and Slondiwe Zondo as the ensemble.