In the rehearsal rooms of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are getting to grips with one of the show’s biggest numbers.
In the original film Me Ol’ Bamboo was energetic enough, but here it has been reimagined as a tap dance number by choreographer Stephen Mear and the steps, along with the the wooden canes, are proving a slightly tricky combination.
“We’re getting there,” says Mear after an initial run through which has the floor shaking. “But can we just remember to pass the bamboos not lob them. It doesn’t look pretty.”
Mear isn’t the kind of choreographer to go in for shouting – as a dancer he worked with too many of those to know they rarely get results – and while the cast may occasionally curse his complex routines they can’t doubt his expertise. Mear was the choreographer, along with Matthew Bourne, on the hugely successful new production of Mary Poppins in the West End, where he also recently worked on the critically acclaimed Gypsy, starring Imelda Staunton.
“I have listened to the sound of rather a lot of bamboo hitting the floor over the last week or so, but this cast is so dedicated that I have absolutely no doubt that it will all be fine. The morning after the very first rehearsal I got to the theatre to find some of them had come in early to practice. I do have a reputation for pushing people out of their comfort zones. I am not one to scream and shout, but I’m also not a pushover. Everyone who works with me learns quite quickly that I expect a certain standard.
“Whenever we are casting a show, some of the leads will say, ‘You know I’m not a terribly good dancer’, but if as they are prepared to work hard then I can make them dance.”
Mear grew up in Loughborough and took his first dance steps at the school where his mother taught. “I would run in and out of classes and thankfully no one ever asked me to leave,” he says. “I am dyslexic, although I was never formally diagnosed while I was at school. For a long time I did think I was stupid. Dance saved me in a way. I wasn’t very good with words, but dance allowed me to tell stories and communicate.
“At school I was often overlooked, but when I danced people seemed to take notice of me, it allowed me to step out of the shadows.”
Securing a place at 18 at the London Studio Centre, Mear was cast in his first West End role while still in his first year and he notched up an impressive role call of productions including Cats, Anything Goes, Some Like it Hot and Crazy For You.
However, while he enjoyed the limelight, it was quite early on in his career that thoughts turned to choreography.
“When I was a student I couldn’t afford expensive theatre tickets, so I watched every show from the gods where the cheap tickets were. That really influenced how I work as a choreographer. I want everyone in the audience to have a fantastic view and you really can’t beat those big Busby Berkeley numbers which just look incredible from above. The patterns those dancers made were just fantastic. When I was dancing, even when I wasn’t on stage I would often stand in the wings and watch what was going on, I was just fascinated by how people work.”
Since moving into choreography, everything Mear touches seems to turn to gold. There was that production of Mary Poppins which won an Olivier Award for Best Choreography and when it transferred to Broadway also picked up a Tony. Then, Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, which saw Imelda Staunton cast as Momma Rose, desperate to make her children vaudeville stars. It became one of the undoubted hits of recent years.
“I can’t praise Imelda Staunton enough. She was just fabulous to work with and incredibly generous with the rest of the cast. Watching that performance was like watching a volcano. You were aware of all these emotions bubbling under and then suddenly it erupted. Just incredible.”
This is not the first time Mear has worked at the Playhouse. Sixteen years ago when the venue was still in its infancy he worked on Singin’ in the Rain which was a landmark production for the venue.
“I know, it’s been too long, but it’s great to be back.” He is working on Chitty alongside the Playhouse’s artistic director James Brining and so far at least, it’s been a happy partnership.
“This is a fabulous show and staging it at Christmas just gives it that extra certain something. Musicals in general have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years because people have been need of escapism. That’s what these shows offer. For a couple of hours you can leave your worries at the door and escape into a different world.”
With an eccentric inventor, a villain determined to banish children from his kingdom, the evil child catch, the adorable Truly Scrumptious and of course a flying car, Chitty has escapism in spades. It also has a memorable score,
For each of the show’s main numbers, Mear has used a different dance style, so as well as tap, there is also samba, ballet and the odd surprise along the way. For fans of the film, he hopes this production is faithful to the original while not being a carbon copy.
“Since I found out I was going to be doing Chitty, I haven’t watched the film. Of course with these classic shows there are some things that you just don’t mess with, but you have to be free to put your own mark on it. There is no point just replicating what has been before.
“In the theatre you need to make a much bigger impression than you do on film and it’s just wonderful that the Playhouse has been able to invest in such a big cast. Having the bodies on stage makes such a difference to the atmosphere.”
Next year, Mear is due to take his production of Singin’ in the Rain to Paris where it will enjoy the benefits of a 50-plus piece live orchestra and there will also be a new production of 42nd Street.
“That has to be one of the greatest openings to a musical of all time,” he says. “The curtain slowly lifts and there you see the feet of this fabulous tap dancers. You could change it, you could go for something different, but why would you mess with perfection.”
Before all that, there is the finishing touches to be put to Chitty. When we met, Mear has already been working closely with the Playhouse’s wardrobe team to ensure the costumes work for the dancers. Ever the perfectionist, he’s also helped choose Truly Scrumptious’ false eyelashes.
“When I sit there on opening night I want to know that everything is just perfect. We are about to go into the tech rehearsals and at that point the show always takes a few steps back. The cast have to adjust to being on the stage, but it’s a real privilege to be able to see it all take shape.
“Look, let’s be honest, what we do here is not finding a cure for cancer, but it is bringing joy into people’s lives and that’s not a bad way to earn a living.”
• Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, West Yorkshire Playhouse, from December 2 to January 30. For tickets call the box office on 0113 213 7700 or online at wyp.org.uk