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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