Theatre Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Date Posted: 26/06/2013

Rebekah Tailor reviews long-awaited stage spectacular Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now booking at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

As a child, I recall being completely captivated at the moment the doors of the chocolate factory surrender to reveal Willy Wonka’s colourful world of confectionary chaos. Giant lollipops, edible grass, a river of chocolate; it was every child’s dream.

With this vision well and truly ingrained in the imagination of every generation since Roald Dahl’s classic was first published - and of course, by the ensuing film adaptations - it’s no wonder expectation is riding high for Sam Mendes’s long-awaited stage musical.

And the anticipation continues right up until the start of act two, having left the audience dangling at the huge great factory gates that envelop the stage just before the interval. So did the sweet spectacle of the Chocolate Room satisfy my childhood cravings?

Actually, no. But to be fair to set and costume designer Mark Thompson, it’s unlikely that anything bar a real chocolate waterfall cascading across the stage could have lived up to adolescent imaginings.

This aside the sets really are quite incredible, and for me, make the show a must-see. From the psychedelic rainbow of the Inventing Room, where our ‘Double Bubble Duchess’ Violet Beauregarde meets a sticky end; to the crazy techno rave of the Department of the Future. Set changes are seamless; disguised in part by clever use of motion graphics which transport cast and audience from room to marvellous room of Mr Wonka’s chocolate factory. This is clearly where the money’s been spent, and it pays off.

Likewise the on-stage effects: the simple use of shadow puppetry relaying The Amazing Tale of Mr Wonka, the quirky swelling of incorrigible gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde, and the hilarious stage incarnation of the Oompa-Loompas.

Unfortunately no amount of funds can guarantee a decent musical score, and I was disappointed by the efforts of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman - the Tony and Olivier Award-winning pair responsible for Hairspray. With the exception of the instantly recognisable Pure Imagination (the only featured song from the 1971 musical motion picture), the soundtrack to the show is largely forgettable, albeit a lot of fun - particularly when introducing its child stars, aka our first four golden ticket winners.

Joining the afore-mentioned Double Bubble Beauregarde, we have ‘Bavarian beefcake’ Augustus Gloop, ‘techno terror’ Mike Teavee, and ‘tot in a tutu’ the ultimate blister, Veruca Salt. I never fail to be won over by the talents of such young actors, and so it’s a testament to their performance to say what a truly repulsive bunch of little toerags they are! Excepting of course, our sweet-natured hero Charlie ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’ Bucket - the ‘unlikely urchin’ living in little more than a shack, who claims the fifth golden ticket to secure his place on a tour of Willy Wonka’s world-famous chocolate factory - played beautifully by Jack Costello (one of four actors who share the lead).

Olivier Award-winner Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka is just the right mix of completely crackers, a shade of sarcastic, a little bit sad, and ever so slightly sinister - in fact, I much preferred his reincarnation to that of Wonka predecessors Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp. The favourite for me however, was the excellent Nigel Planer, whose performance as Grandpa Joe - Crimean War hero, Victoria Cross recipient, and former Olympic champion - was both heart-warming and endearing.

As with any popular story or cult classic, bringing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to life on stage was always going to be a challenge, not least because every individual or audience member will have strict ideas on how it should be recreated. Imagination is a powerful tool, and can never quite live up to reality.

My advice would be to toss this review aside, ignore the dozens of production images in newspapers, magazine and online. Sit back, relax and enjoy the show anew, basking in the Pure Imagination of Mr Mendes and the fantastic set creations of Mark Thompson.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently booking at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 31st May 2014. Group travel organisers should note that performance times are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Group rates are available for parties of 12 or more.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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