“So we’ve lost a few children along the way, we’ve all learned something though”
One of the hottest tickets of the year is a golden one. London gets its second major adaptation of a Roald Dahl story into a big budget piece of musical theatre as the long-awaited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory finally opens its gates at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. And taking his cue from Willy Wonka, director Sam Mendes has mixed it with love and made it taste good, displaying, along with designer Mark Thompson, just as much wit and invention as the candyman himself in bringing this world to such entertaining life on the stage.
David Greig’s book remains largely faithful to Dahl’s novel, but expanding the poverty-stricken domestic set-up of Charlie Bucket and his extended family as the young boy dreams of finding one of five elusive passes into Wonka’s mysterious factory. As the tickets are found one by one in a series of vividly realised tableaux, his hopes recede but the presence of a shadowy tramp-like figure ensures that there’s soon a golden twinkle in Charlie’s eye and a life-changing journey can begin.
Much of the pleasure of this production comes from the strength of its performances. We saw Isaac Rouse take on the role of Charlie, shared with three others, with a clear, wide-eyed charm which keeps his innocence just about on the right side of cute. The other kids fare better: Harrison Slater’s beefy Bavarian Augustus Gloop, Polly Allen as a most determined Veruca Salt, India Ria Amarteifio’s streetwise gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde and Adam Mitchell’s hyperactive and hyperviolent Mike Teavee all getting their chance to shine in each half as they gradually fall foul of Wonka’s brand of aptitude tests. Oompah Loompah doompadah dee indeed.
That said, Marc Shaiman has created an entirely new score for this show – just Pure Imagination remains of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s music for the 1971 film – and it is solid rather than spectacular, the music doesn’t crackle with the same ingenuity as the visual language used, which is often breath-taking. From magic tricks to nifty choreography, a Quentin Blake animated opening sequence to the technically magnificent backdrops, it often looks amazing. And in the middle of it all is Douglas Hodge’s fantastic Willy Wonka, closer to malevolent than mischievous as those who cross him soon find out, but also capable of warmth and wonder as in the climactic elevator ride.
There are some mis-steps – placing the interval where it is means the first half feels overlong and the second half a little too rushed, a sequence in the Nut Room calls to mind a demented take on The Nutcracker and the Great Glass Elevator seems set to prove a technological hazard. And like many a sweet treat, these can occasionally feel like empty calories with little of substance ever coming through with any of the characters, no real emotion ever being mined alongside the wonder.
But the heady sugar rush of spectacle will appeal to many, children especially, and there’s an undoubted charm to what emerges as actually quite an old-fashioned piece of musical theatre, traditional in the best sense of the word.