Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The hotly anticipated new musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. based on the novel by Roald Dahl, has landed at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The Dahl Estate has loosened its hold over the use of Dahl’s writing for stage, unsurprisingly given the success that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda is having on the stage here and on Broadway. Nonetheless, given Tim Burton’s whacky musical film adaptation with Johnny Depp in 2005, and Gene Wilde starring in the 1971 film, any further representation needs a pinch of magic. With Sam Mendes directing, a book by David Greig, and Douglas Hodge and Nigel Planer starring as Willy Wonka and Grandpa Joe respectively, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory l has a lot going for it. Does it entertain? Hell yes. Is it magical? Sadly not.

You see, I think of chocolate and the wonders that could be held within a chocolate factory such as Willy Wonka’s, and my lips begin to twitch, my tongue licks the air, and my salvia glands go into overdrive. Mendes’s direction, with some inventive stage design by Mark Thompson, leaves you wanting so much more. It’s not that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn’t enjoyable, quite the contrary,  but it doesn’t leaving you drooling or tempt you to reach out and to taste. It entertains, sure, but it doesn’t leave you agog. Quite simply, for all the treats and imagination that have gone into the book and direction, something is missing: the magic.

Greig’s book captures Dahl’s novel with verve and wit, and is entertaining in its portrayal of characters, especially the five golden ticket winners. Augustus Gloop, the Austrain fatty, is a superb highlight, with a body that bobs with blubber, whilst Violet Beauregarde is a hip-hop, bubble-gum busting diva, and Mike Teavee’s techno-fuelled gamer has a joystick-in-hand killing everyone “bang, bang”. Veruca Salt’s ballerina stance keeps her in constant fluttering across the stage, even as she demands “I want, I want”, whilst Charlie Bucket, the down-to-earth and loveable central character is the model child, happy with what he has and those he shares it with. Greig puts a contemporary twist on each, and whilst at times you can’t stand their bossy-boots demeanour, they make for an entertaining collection of brats.

The first half of Greig’s book concentrates perhaps a little too much on the squalor of the Bucket’s home and poverty, with the grandparents stuck in their bed with another night of cabbage soup. Whilst there are some brilliant break-out scenes to the golden ticket winners (each with their own frustratingly good musical numbers, ‘The Double Bubble Duchess’ being a particular highlight) by the end of the first act we’ve seen Hodges’s Wonka character for all of five minutes and the closing number of ‘It Must Be Believed to Be Seen’ is a little disappointing. There is a touching song, ‘If Your Mother Were Here’ sung by Jack Shalloo (Mr Bucket) and  Alex Clatworthy (Mrs Bucket) about their love for their son against the grinding poverty they live in, which tugs at your heart strings.

Thankfully, the second act takes a colourful and bizarre uplift with Thompson’s stage designs proving to be a show of all their own. There’s a room inhabited by squirrels to test the good and bad nuts, and robots that produce ever-lasting gobstoppers and gum sticks of three course dinner potential. Although inventive and at times gleeful in their design potential, the repetitive reveal of each magical room does grate after a while, not to mention the less-than-imaginative video projections, but that’s a small moan. The true stars  come in the form of of the Oompa-Loompas ensemble whose costumes and stage tricky are hilarious. It easy to see a spinoff production using these three-foot characters; their dancing and singing is sheer brilliance and unlike anything we’ve seen before – a complete joy to behold.

Hodge, as the bizarre Willy Wonka, is entertaining enough but lacks a certain chutzpah needed to really show the magical potential of Dahl’s character. Nigel Planer lovingly portrays Grandpa Joe. Overall, Mendes’s production entertains, helped greatly by the hilarious book by Greig and stage inventiveness of Thompson, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is missing the joy of being a child in a sweet shop. There’s also a distinct lack of chocolate in the production – as a chocolate addict I wanted coaco dripping from every scene, but that’s  minor point. As a show you get entertainment and joy, but as a musical none of the songs are memorable (aside from the iconic ‘Pure Imagination’) and, like cotton candy, this show looks and tastes good but soon dissolves.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is booking until May 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Official Charlie and the Chocolate Factory website. Photo by Helen Maybanks.