Theatre Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Where: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane / When: December 2013

I was very excited to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was a big Roald Dahl fan growing up and C&TCF stands out in my memory. I wasn’t sure I could imagine anything more exciting as a child than a tour of a chocolate factory. I had recently been to Cadbury World when I read it, so it felt like it could actually be true. What’s more, Dahl’s descriptions of the different Wonka Chocolate bars are positively mouth-watering and I was looking forward to seeing them come to life (they sounded far better than the distinctly underwhelming Wonka bars Nestle recently released) .

A full summary of the book can be found here. In brief, Willy Wonka is a reclusive chocolate-making impresario, who one day announces that there will be the opportunity for members of the public to win five golden tickets, hidden in Wonka bars, to take an exclusive tour round his chocolate factory. Our hero – Charlie Bucket – is from a loving but desperately poor family, who dreams of meeting Wonka and going in the factory. As each golden ticket gets found (by increasingly obnoxious children) his chances look slim, but fate may be on Charlie’s side…

I had high hopes for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory – The Musical. It had a number of things going for it: well-loved source material, directed by Sam Mendes and the great Douglas Hodge in the role of Willy Wonka. It was also following hot on the heels of the success of the RSC’s wonderful adaptation of Matilda, which I saw earlier this year, which proved that Dahl could be successfully updated for musical theatre.

After the performance, I came away thinking it was quite a good show, with a few great elements (see below) but was ultimately unsatisfied and rather disappointed. The friends I saw it with had the same feeling. It wasn’t the fact that we couldn’t see part of the stage (necessity and late booking meant we were seated on one side of the balcony, meaning a whole corner of the stage was lost) as the children around us seemed to be delighted. It wasn’t the air conditioning blasting down our necks, forcing us to put our coats back on (I think the Theatre Royal may have slightly over-compensated for how full the theatre was) and it wasn’t even not being able to understand much of what the characters were singing. I think the disappointment has two causes. One is the aforementioned Matilda. One of my companions, with whom I’d seen Matilda in August, pointed out that that show was so resoundingly clever, witty and impressive, you couldn’t help but compare the two, both being adaptations of Dahl novels. Unfortunately for C&TCF, it came up rather short in this comparison, rather blasting us in the face with how jolly, and naughty and eccentric it all was, rather than relying on the story to sell itself. There is a reason the books are still so popular after all.

The other issue was in the HUGENESS of everything. The show is visually spectacular, with some truly amazing set pieces – the glass elevator and TV room were particular standouts – but seems to use the visual elements of the story as a crutch, hoping we’ll be so blown away with what we’re looking at, we won’t notice much else. The music roared out of the speakers, practically drowning out the singers, so that for most of the show I could hear there was singing but had great difficulty discerning the actual words. Half the joy in Dahl is the silly and fizzy language used (Tim Minchin makes great use of this in Matilda) and it’s all lost in the volume of everything else. It’s not helped by the fact that the songs are completely forgettable and considering it was musical, I felt quite impatient whenever the singing started, finding those parts rather boring in comparison to the rest of the show.

I enjoyed the introduction of the four rather nasty children who would be joining Charlie on the tour. Dahl always delighted in giving people their comeuppance and the more badly behaved the characters are, the worse off you know they’re ultimately going to be. The kids put an enormous amount of energy and colour into their characters, obviously enjoying their misbehaviour. It being some time since I had read the book, I was reminded how brutal some of the punishments are (Veruca Salt is sent on a journey to the incinerator, for example), with Wonka leaving it deliberately vague as to whether the parents will be able to reach them in time (the sight of Augustus Gloop’s face popping up at various intervals while being sucked through a waste pipe was delightfully ghoulish). It was refreshing to see that the show stuck with the venom of Dahl’s original plot.

The show picks up considerably with the appearance of Willy Wonka, by far the most interesting character, delightfully played by Douglas Hodge. Hodge brings class and elegance to everything he does and manages to make Wonka both mysterious and exciting and rather chilling and menacing. Wonka is a prickly character who fails to relate to (or play nicely with) others and who is quite clearly not someone you would entrust your child to, such is his disregard for others. Hodge lends a credible edge to the disposal of the other children, adding a hint of glee whenever he has to explain where they’ve gone to their parents. He also sings the only number I remember, Pure Imagination beautifully, (the only non-original song in the show, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley and appearing originally in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) creating a lovely moment of wonder, right at the end of the show.

Special mentions must go to the four actors playing Charlie’s grandparents, who were as crotchety and creaking as I imagined, and to Iris Roberts, the actress playing Mrs TeeVee, who produced a great comic performance in amongst jostling child performers.

There was a great deal of potential in this as a musical and I am disappointed that it failed to deliver (though it never even touched the depths of misery that was watching the doomed Viva Forever). However, the children in the audience seemed truly delighted – there was a lovely moment when a little girl sat behind us practically shouted ‘it’s a GOLDEN TICKET!’ towards the end of the first half – so it definitely stands up as successful family entertainment. It was full of energy and visually spectacular, but didn’t linger in the Pop Arts heart.

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Theatre Review: The Light Princess

When: Dec 2013 / Where: National Theatre

The Light Princess is a new musical, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, who I suspect has been part of the draw for many people. Her music is individualistic and highly poetic in nature – the language and storytelling used suggest that her style would lend itself well to a musical. She rarely writes or sings about the ‘expected’ and her work often has a feminist leaning. I felt it would be a safe bet that her involvement here meant that we would be in for something a little more unusual.

The plot summary is as follows: There are two, warring kingdoms, with two motherless children at the heart of them. Upon the death of her mother, Princess Althea decides she never wants to feel sad or cry again and that everything in life must be light. As a consequence, she loses her own gravity and floats around, untouchable in the sky. The King locks her away in a tower and focuses all his efforts on his son as the kingdom’s future leader. The other side of the forest, Prince Digby becomes so weighed down by his sadness at the loss of his mother, that he never smiles again.

When Althea’s brother is murdered, her father turns to her in desperation, asking her to lead the country. But years of his neglect and Althea’s distance from others leads to her running away, rather than becoming Queen. In the woods, she runs into Digby, sent on a mission to find and kill her. He finds he is unable to, enchanted by her, and so a Romeo & Juliet-esque love story begins. They must now decide whether to face their destinies and if they can face them together and bring an end to the war.

The Light Princess had all the hallmarks of a traditional fairy tale, with a few modern elements thrown in. The fairy tale setting gave way to some incredible, wondrous staging. Words almost can’t do justice to how lovely and inventive the work of the design and technical teams was. The sets and costumes were bursting with life and colour; particularly well done was a secret lake teeming with wildlife, which was imaginatively evoked. The opening preface to the story was done through shadow projections onto the back of the stage (much like this). It gave the impression of the audience being told an epic, classical, story and fit nicely with the overarching themes of the show.

Billed as a family show, the basic fairy tale was suitable for children to enjoy, while other, more complex themes were explored for the adults in the audience. The show examined father-child relationships; particularly fathers and daughters and how important those core familial relationships are to a child’s development. It looked at the place of women within patriarchal societies – Althea rejects societal norms and longs to be free from the constraints of her life as a royal daughter – and is subjected to cruel and violent attempts by her father to (literally) ground her. It is widely considered that a husband will solve the crisis and encourage the people to have faith in Althea’s power to lead… (Ahem). Interestingly, it also took a look at why we need emotional balance. Althea struggled with emotions that dug too deep, or weighed her spirit down; Digby resisted happiness. Neither could achieve harmony or freedom while failing to acknowledge core parts of the human experience.

No review of a musical would be complete without mention of the music. Alas, the songs were, I found, not especially memorable. I didn’t leave humming any of them, no scraps of music or harmony got lodged in my brain. But then, I’m not sure that Tori Amos has ever really written what you’d call ‘catchy’ music, so why start now? I did find some songs overlong and repetitive – the point of most songs in musicals is to forward the plot and I felt that they went past that mark several times. The music did contain an ethereal, mystical quality to it, blending well with the fairy tale atmosphere and the singing was excellent; the cast coping admirably with sometimes sudden changes in pitch, note or tempo (as noted above, Amos’ music is often full of the unexpected). Special notice must go to Clive Rowe for doing this particularly well in his major solo.

It was good to see a musical with such an impetuous, wilful – and not always likeable – heroine at the centre. Althea’s refusal to engage with others and her fury at Digby whenever he disagrees with her are infuriating, but her spirit and enthusiasm for the joys in life are wonderfully engaging and make you root for her survival. Much of the credit for the vividness of Althea as a character must go to Rosalie Craig, who absolutely dazzles in this role. Standing out amongst the rest of the cast with a shock of resolutely red hair (a reflection of our composer) she infuses Althea with a strength and effervescence that fill up the stage. Her emotional journey is realistically portrayed and Craig particularly impressed with her command of the dramatic acrobatics her character (who has no gravity and is always drifting and floating) must do. Craig sings at length while turning upside down and back round again, without a note ever slipping or wavering.

I felt that the acrobatics were the most impressive thing about the show. The conceit that Althea cannot ever quite touch the ground is an intriguing one, playing a fantastical role (to complete our fairy tale) and a metaphorical one: Althea cannot cope with reality and fears being on the ground with everyone else; fears their sadness, their anger, their deceit. She believes that by staying elevated and away from them, she will escape the sadness in life. It is a high-concept idea and demanded ingenuity to put into practice. I had assumed, prior to the show, that the ‘light’ part of the princess would be done using wires. In actuality, it is much more exciting than that. I don’t want to explain too much, as I enjoyed the fact that it was a surprise, but while wire work is involved, there is also a very gifted (and strong!) acrobatics team at work here. They, coupled with Craig, must have worked incredibly hard on making Althea’s movements seem light and ethereal. No one shows any sign of working to create that impression –least of all Craig. The effect they manage to produce is utterly magical. Not once do Althea’s feet touch the ground, with the mechanics needed to do so seemingly invisible.

As mentioned above, I did feel that the songs sometimes erred on the long side and in fact, one of my only criticisms would be that I felt the show was too long in general. It might have benefitted from being trimmed down by about 10 minutes, to keep the energy from flagging a bit at the end. However, that being said, I really liked The Light Princess. It was unusual, well-acted, well sung, absolutely sumptuous to look at and phenomenally well staged. It’s playing for limited number of weeks – more information can be found here.

Welcome to 2014!

Apologies for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks – I’ve been busy eating, drinking and being merry over the festive period. I managed to see and read a few things in those weeks though, so new reviews will be up shortly.

I hope you all had a great start to the New Year; lets hope 2014 is a good one!