Forget CGI wizardry on large and small screens. If you want real magic in a family show, try the stage version of the well-loved 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You know that the magic is working when the teenagers and parents in the audience lean forward to catch every moment, as enthralled as the youngsters and senior citizens.
A great deal of money has been thrown at this new touring version, but it's money well spent. There's a large cast, true of voice and fleet of foot, with some extremely well-trained dogs and a complement of children to supplement the adult performers. And, of course, there's the car itself – a miracle of shiny technological belief-suspension mechanics from Howard Eaton Lighting which turns and glides, hovers and flies to increasing, well-deserved rounds of applause.
Darren Bennett is our inventor hero Caracacus Potts and Rachel Stanley plays the feisty sweetmaker's daughter who joins him and his children in their adventures. There's a deliciously over-the-top performance of the scheming baroness by Kim Ismay (I particularly enjoyed her second act number) and an equally deft one as the sinister child catcher by Dean Maynard, the most hissable of villains.
Also involved in the adventure are two thoroughly inept Vulgarian spies, to whose mishaps and routines Richard Ashton and Nigel Garton bring a well-balanced sense of send-up (especially for the "Act English" scene) and comic timing. Josie Griffiths and Bradley Jordan White are excellent as the motherless Potts children.
The musical director for the performance I saw was Andrew Corcoran, marshalling his forces on stage and in the pit with assurance. This production is by Adrian Noble, who treats it with seriousness for the message underlaying the fluff of the story but never to break the spell. David Morgan's choreography sparkles, with good ensemble groupings and hints of something more classical for those who care to probe.
Anthony Ward's sets and costumes also have a stand-out quality. The sweet factory scene and the country fair with its rustic merrymaking are particularly attractive; everything is properly in period and so gives an extra flourish to the fantasy elements from the Rowland Emmett-Heath Robinson contraption which people these scenes and those at the windmill.
At two hours running time, plus an interval, the show's just the right length for family theatre. That's a phrase which is sometimes abused. Applied to this show, it's absolutely right.