Yesterday, for the second time in a week, I found myself crammed behind rows of spectators just off Regent Street straining for the occasional view of a Grand Prix racing car. I was tantalisingly close to a selection of famous faces, the noise was deafening, and there were at least 20 minutes in the middle of the event where I saw absolutely nothing. But no, this wasn't a rerun of Bernie Ecclestone's farcical Formula 1 parade, I was attending a matinee performance of the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. Uncles tend to be asked to do these sorts of things when the the nephew/niece contingent comes down from Norfolk to London for the day.
We managed to fit in a whistlestop tour of Greenwich before taking our seats in the leftmost extremeties of the Palladium's Upper Circle with minutes to spare. There was a reasonable view of most of the stage, so long as the child in the seat in front wasn't sat bolt upright trying to see past the six-foot mum in the seat in front of them. An international family audience was in attendance, anxious parents hoping that their offspring could stay seated, quiet and tantrum-free for a full three hours. We resisted buying any of the vastly overpriced souvenirs, and avoided the half-time ice creams that must have been the worst value per spoonful in the world ever. And we spent the afternoon in the company of Gary Wilmot, Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair. Lucky us.
As for the musical, well, you know all the songs because you've sung along with them all on the telly every Christmas since you were little. And you know the story. Car meets man. Car meets woman. Woman meets angelic kids. Family picnic interrupted by nightmare trip to eastern Europe. Everyone falls in love. The plot works great for a film but less well for a West End play because there are far too many characters who only manage to appear in two or three scenes. The evil Child Catcher is a case in point, with poor old Lionel Blair left sitting in his dressing room for 99% of the first half and a good two-thirds of the second. His brilliantly dark performance got a loud panto boo from the audience every time he appeared, but the fast-paced linear story meant that he couldn't stalk the stage often enough. And all to soon he was gone, although he did leave the stage in a net on the end of a very long rope through a hole in the auditorium roof, which was nice.
But the real star of the show was Chitty herself. We didn't see the car often enough, with rather too much "Oh we've just left Chitty round the corner" throughout, but its rare appearances at the end of each half had the appropriate wow factor all the same. I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed, with obvious strings or some automated mechanism clearly visible underneath but no, the presentation was immaculate and highly convincing. All in all an entertaining afternoon full of singalong favourites and rock-solid acting. The very special effects won over the hearts of my nephews quite convincingly ("We liked the car best"), although I'm assured by the more adult members of my entourage that the whole Lion King experience is much much better. Oh Chitty, you Chitty, pretty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we sort of loved you.