“It’s the a-choc-alypse…no, it’s choc-mageddon”
What to do when a golden ticket is actually thrust into one’s hand?! A late invitation to a very early preview of new big budget musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meant a hurried trip to the newly refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see what has to be one of the most highly anticipated productions of the year with Sam Mendes directing, Peter Darling choreographing and Douglas Hodge taking on the role of Willy Wonka. Given the huge success of fellow Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda, the stakes on this multi-million production are substantial and a month long preview period is testament to how much the team want to test the show before opening night.
Where Charlie might suffer, unlike Matilda, is in the enduring memory of the iconic film version from 1971. When Hodge appears at the door of his factory, you can sense the sigh of relief as he looks ‘right’, as in definitely inspired by Gene Wilder’s take on the character; when the doors open on the Chocolate room, there’s a slight sense of disappointment which is perhaps inevitable as the logistics of creating a chocolate waterfall and river come up hard against what appears to be a giant curly-wurly (hopefully there’s more to be done here).
So consequently much of my emotional reaction to the show actually came from preconceived notions – tears came in anticipation of Charlie unwrapping the all-important chocolate bar rather than because of it, the goosebumps at the climactic elevator ride came from the sneaky use of Bricusse and Newley’s ever lovely ‘Pure Imagination’ (the only song to make it from the film) as the lift itself wasn’t ready to be used and apparently the cause of earlier previews being cancelled.
There are moments of theatrical magic that the show thoroughly owns for itself though, most notably for me the way in which the other children are revealed as they each get their golden tickets being the undoubted highlight of the first half. Jamie Harrison’s illusion work brings a couple of lovely moments too and the Act 1 closer, ‘It Must Be Believed To Be Seen’, is a great introductory number for Hodge’s Wonka. The opening Quentin Blake-inspired video which details the making of chocolate is excellent too though perhaps a little long for the younger viewer.
The use of Jon Driscoll’s projection in the second act enlivens the trip around the factory where perhaps a little more originality could make the set pieces themselves sparkle a little more. The Oompa-Loompas are well done, and pleasingly large in number which fills the stage well, though it’s a real shame that their iconic theme tune isn’t used here (especially if ‘Pure Imagination’ is being borrowed) and there’s a misjudged disco moment which seems mainly designed to give them a costume which allows the actors to stretch their legs…
By and large, the new score by Marc Shaiman errs to a traditionally classic sound, Nick Skilbeck’s orchestra sounding excellent, and time will tell if the tunefulness possess longevity (I can’t say I was humming any of the new songs as I left). The child performers all gave an impressively high level of performance (nice to see Adrianna Bertola again) and there’s good work from Nigel Planer as a sprightly Grandpa Joe (though the other grandparents could do with being defined a little stronger).
It was definitely interesting to see the show at such an early stage in its development, though I do feel for people who paid considerable amounts of money for something that isn’t quite ready yet. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a largely faithful adaptation which is full of impressive set pieces, but still has room to introduce a deal more theatrical magic to make the most of the unique opportunities offered by presenting the story onstage. As stated, there’s a good month of previews in which this could happen – careful media planning is already in place with the first photos of Douglas Hodge in character being released this weekend – and I look forward to seeing the show again to see just how the chocolate has set.