Dogs vs Flying Cars: A surprisingly Georgian night at the theatre

Flying Car Vs Dog

A couple of weekends ago I went to see the touring production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Bristol Hippodrome. I felt much the same about the show as I did when I saw it on the West End. Although it has some fun moments, it’s lumbered with some distinctly average new songs, and an extremely messy second act. Criminally, the stage production chooses to abandon some of the most enjoyable elements of the film, most notably the secret, murderous hatred between the Baron and Baroness Bomburst, disguised by sickeningly cutesy lovey-dovey language. ‘Chu-chi Face’, the ostensible love song sung by the pair as the Baron tries several ways to murder the Baroness, is a wonderfully ironic highlight of the film. On stage, this side of their relationship is jettisoned, and the Baron becomes merely an overgrown child, pathetically reciprocating the Baroness’s sugary sentiments.

All the same, the stage production remains enjoyable thanks in large parts to its sheer spectacle. The flying car is as bewitching and convincing a piece of stage magic as ever, and gets a huge reaction from audiences. They say nobody leaves the theatre humming the scenery, but in Chitty they’ve given it its own curtain call before they head out into the night.

Another highlight of the show, I must confess, is its cast of capering canines – at times, dozens of dogs fill the stage. I’ve always felt that dogs are under-appreciated thespians. Actors spend years in training, learning not to act, to be the part rather than merely acting it. Dogs get this right off the bat. A dog is a dog, always will be. In Chitty, the dogs seemed to be enjoying themselves far more than many of the chorus, too. And, most excitingly, when a dog’s on stage, you never know quite what’s going to happen. They may run off and on when they’re told, and perform any number of other tricks on cue, but they’re still dogs. They’re not worrying about getting shouted at by the stage manager or the producer complaining to Equity. Professional theatre can get incredibly stale and predictable, so much like a day at the office, that anything that sets that even slightly on edge is always a joy. At the climax of the Chitty, the dog and the flying car appear on stage together. Millions of pounds of development, a whole team dedicated to building the thing, packing it into lorries and keeping it going every night, and somehow, I still found myself staring at the chubby little dog.

Sometimes I wonder if I might not be a bit simple, so it was reassuring to read in The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, that the Georgians would be firmly on my side on this one. In this book, Andrew McConnell Stott paints a wonderful picture of the awe-inspiring excess of Georgian theatre in London, as rival playhouses vied to add ever more spectacle to their spectaculars, and draw crowds of hungry theatre-goers. In 1794, the Covent Garden theatre staged a production of the full-blooded romance Lodoiska. Its climax featured a siege on Lovinski Castle by a horde of Tartars. Military extras swarmed the stage, firing rifles and cannon, while real flames erupted eighteen feet high at the back of the stage (frequently threatening to engulf it entirely). The heroine of the piece is trapped in a high tower, surrounded by the flames, prompting the hero to dash across a bridge, scale the tower and rescue the maiden, seconds before carpenters backstage knocked out supports, sending both bridge and tower hurtling towards the stage. One night, one of the carpenters proved rather too keen, scuttling the bridge too early, while the hero was still on it. He fell to the stage, and somehow managed to catch the heroine as she fell with the collapsing tower. When he stepped out of the smoke, with her in his arms, the pair received such a rapturous response from the audience, thinking that this was all part of the show, that they were forced to repeat this new hair-raising climax every night.

Not wanting to be outdone, Sadler’s Wells ripped out its entire under-stage area one season, so that it could be filled with water and used to stage mock naval battles (with children employed to man the ships so as to disguise their miniature scale). Buoyed by Nelson-mania, the venture was a roaring success, and performances continued nightly in the increasingly unsanitary waters.

The Georgians, like me, also had a particular fondness for animal actors, albeit taken to a typically outrageous extreme. One notable hit in 1784 involved Moustache, a dog cast as the star of a play called The Deserter. The plot of this impossibly bizarre piece of theatre centred on Moustache leading his platoon of canine soldiers into battle against their enemies. Frederick Reynolds remembered seeing him,

“in his little uniform, military boots, with smart musket and helmet, cheering and inspring his fellow soldiers to follow him up the scaling ladders, and storm the fort”

That I would pay to see. As did the Georgians, in their droves. The following season was replete with a Noah’s Ark of entertaining animals, from a hare playing the drums to a singing duck, two dancing horses and, Samuel Johnson’s favourite, a pig who could read and tell the time.

Clearly, this was not the ultimate expression of what theatre can achieve, but it is telling that men like Johnson and Sheridan (who managed Covent Garden at this time) had such open attitudes to this type of theatre. Georgian theatre might have been chaotic, hopelessly extravagant, rampantly commercial, often shallow and sometimes desperate, but it was also exhilariting, bold, extremely popular and wildly entertaining. It’s a reminder of how deadening the limits of snobbery can be, and of the joys of a willingess to try anything once.

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