The opening of the new West End musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is almost as eagerly anticipated as the re-opening of the Wonka factory itself, and, having been given my very own golden ticket, I admit I could barely contain my excitement.
Nothing in my wildest imagination, however, could have prepared me for the magical treat in store. Much has been made in the press of the eye-wateringly expensive set, and I think it is safe to say that it was worth every penny, combining stylish, atmospheric design with technological wizardry. Sam Mendes brings his Hollywood blockbuster experience to the London stage, and the result is an evening of mind-blowing effects and delicious story-telling which will delight children and adults alike.
Despite the high-tech set and effects, the team have wisely decided to do very little to the actual play in terms of modernisation. Both the design and the script have an authentically “Dahl” feel to them, and the children themselves, as well as the fates they meet, are satisfyingly nasty. Violet Beauregarde has been upgraded to a miniature “celeb”, rapping in between blowing bubbles, and Mike Teavee is now a frenetic computer game addict with disturbingly violent tendencies whose desperately smiling mother rattles with Valium, but otherwise all of the characters are reassuringly familiar. The script is reasonably faithful to the book, with very little politically correct polish to it – the Oompa-Loompas happily refer to Veruca Salt as a “cow” – and the moral lessons, although clear, never feel laboured. In fact, the very last one, always a bit of a downer in the book, has been removed altogether. The message is clear; this production is all about FUN!
The two halves of the play are very different, both visually and atmospherically. In the first half, after a charming introductory projection reel illustrated by Quentin Blake himself, we are introduced to Charlie Bucket, rummaging in a dump for “almost perfect” junk, and to the extended Bucket family, living hand-to-mouth in a Dickensian hovel.
Chocolate is a luxury they just cannot afford, and the very idea that they might win a coveted Wonka golden ticket is as likely as the family going to the moon. Prospects are bleak but spirits are kept resolutely high. The action is sometimes a little slow, but is enlivened by the raucous and occasionally crude antics of the quartet of bedridden grandparents, whose beds zoom around the stage, and by the wonderfully staged “TV set” on which they watch, with growing despair, the parade of horrific brats winning their Golden Tickets. The family’s joy when Charlie miraculously finds his very own Golden Ticket is uplifting, particularly that of his suddenly un-bedridden Grandpa Joe, played with glorious eccentricity by Nigel Planer. And finally, there we are before the gates of the Wonka Factory itself.
After the interval the tone of the play is much more upbeat. The sets are even more dazzling, the storyline more compelling and the script is now a parade of quick fire jokes and snappy one liners, thanks largely to the man himself, Mr Willy Wonka, who guides us through the surreal, colourful landscapes of the wonderland that is his factory. It is now that the real brilliance of the effects becomes apparent; children are sucked through tubes full of chocolate, blown up like blueberries, assaulted by giant squirrels and miniaturised. Yes, it really does all happen right there before your eyes. At no point, however, do the effects ever take over; however jaw-dropping they may be they are always part of the show, and never The Show itself. The children fulfil their unappealing stereotypes with aplomb and comic mastery, and Jack Costello as Charlie manages to walk the thin line of angelic innocence without ever tipping over into nauseating sweetness.
A spontaneous storm of applause from the audience, who had clearly been waiting with bated breath, heralded the arrival of the undoubted stars of the show, the Oompa-Loompas. Refreshingly low-tech yet brilliantly effective, these miniature scene-stealers sang, cavorted and danced their way into everybody’s hearts in a variety of improbable outfits and poses. Their job was to celebrate the departure of each revolting child in song, and this they did with wickedly gleeful vim and superbly inventive choreography, dreamed up, possibly after a late-night Stilton snack, by Peter Darling.
Oddly enough, the only slightly bum note came from Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka himself. This is no reflection on his singing voice, which is wonderfully melodic, nor even his acting skills, which are clearly masterly. Maybe I am being overly critical, but for me he just lacked that essential spark, that innate Wonka-ishness which is so hard to define but so easy to recognise. As an anti-hero Willy Wonka surely has to rank as one of the greats, but Hodge played him as a generic oddball, which was disappointing. It is maybe unfair to compare him with the other Wonkas, and I was certainly not hoping for Johnny Depp’s slightly damaged creepiness, but a touch of Gene Wilder’s boggle-eyed instability would definitely have made him a more interesting character. Green satin trousers do not necessarily a madman make.
So finally we come with Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Willy Wonka to the famous glass elevator and to the blissfully feel-good finale. A beautifully moving rendition of Pure Imagination, the only song taken from the original film and probably the only one that anyone will remember from this production, helps to send all of the adults in the audience on their way on a wave of happy nostalgia, while a last-minute surprise trick had all of the children – and me – gasping in thrilled awe.
This play is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to indulge in pure, delightful, spectacular fantasy. When you leave the theatre after seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory you will have, in the words of Willy Wonka himself, a Smile in your Step, and a Spring in your Heart.
Review by Genni Trickett
ROALD DAHL’s pleasurable dark story of young Charlie Bucket and the mysterious confectioner Willy Wonka is brought to life in a new West End musical directed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes.
When Charlie wins a golden ticket to the weird and wonderful Wonka Chocolate Factory, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime to feast on the sweets he’s always dreamed of.
But on the far side of the gates amazement awaits him, as down the sugary corridors and among the incredible edible delights, the five lucky winners find out not everything is as sweet as it appears.
Drury Lane Theatre Royal
London, WC2B 5JF
Booking Until: 31st May 2014
Updated 13th September 2013