Roald Dahl’s classic book, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, has found its way to cinema screens twice thus far. Neither version was entirely faithful to Dahl’s text, with liberties taken in different places. Arguably the least faithful, Mel Stuart’s 1971 Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is comfortably the most loved, with Gene Wilder’s dark portrayal of the title role rightly revered. It was surprising, therefore, just how much Tim Burton’s more recent take on the material managed to miss the mark, with a far kookier Willy Wonka, in the guise of Johnny Depp.
It seems a fair bet that the new stage Wonka, Douglas Hodge, has seen both these films. And, much like the new stage musical take on Dahl’s book, he takes what he needs from both in finding his own take on the character. As such, his Wonka is slightly lighter than Wilder’s, less childlike in a way than Depp’s, and distinct enough for this production.
The show itself treads its own way for the most part too. It keeps in tone an era of decades past, with the Bucket family living in a shack of a home, scavenging what they can to get by. There’s, of course, cabbage soup to be eaten too. Yet in other ways, Sam Mendes’ production goes extremely contemporary: the character of Mike Teevee is very much a product of the modern era, far more concerned with videogames than he is watching a bit of CBeebies.
There’s a sense of the proverbial having its chocolate bar and eating it by spanning the feel of one era with overt references to another, but it’d be remiss to say it damages things.
Furthermore, the production deals with the challenges of a large ensemble well, too. With five golden ticket winners, their families, the Buckets, Wonka and the Oompa Loompas to fit in, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory on stage has to offset the fact that some characters get very little focus (Augustus Gloop always suffered with this to an extent), and others are often standing in the background, watching what’s going on.
Nigel Planer for instance is a fun, strong Grandpa Joe, but he spends most of the second act standing alongside Charlie, watching the procession of children falling the wrong side of Willy Wonka’s rules. Even Douglas Hodge’s excellent Willy Wonka is unseen for around half the show.
This does, inevitably, mean that some of the cast members fare better than others. Violet Beauregard, and her father (played by Paul J Medford) get a striking number, and tear up the stage. Conversely, the quieter Alex Clatworthy and Jack Shalloo bring a real tenderness to the roles of Charlie’s parents. The child cast, meanwhile, is quite excellent, albeit set to rotate regularly with the demands of a West End show.
Interestingly, Mendes’ production is one very much of two halves. The first half is effectively a single set, where we spend time with the Buckets, and watch – with the help of a huge television – as Willy Wonka’s infamous golden ticket search gets underway. The story is faithful to Dahl’s text in that regard, in that it’s still a (streamlined) hunt for five golden tickets, to be able to visit Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory. The second half, however, is where the money has really been spent, and there’s a feeling that the production is utterly uncorked once the golden ticket winners step into Wonka’s factory.
If the first half has most of the warmth and charm, the second half of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory bursts with spectacle. Rooms of Wonka’s factory are brilliantly brought to life. The squirrels alone need to be seen to be believed. It’s perhaps the ultimate compliment to the production that the stage doesn’t feel that it’s straitjacketed the imagination of the book at all. There’s technical wizardry left right and centre, and some excellent Oompa Loompas, but you’re not sat there wondering how it was all done. You’re just sat there enjoying it.
Musically, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have put together a collection of strong songs and music. They make one interesting decision, to delve into the songs of the Mel Stuart film, and it did leave me thinking that there was at least one other song they could have pilfered and reworked from that, which would have particularly suited the production. But this remains a production with an identity of its own, and the music is very much part and parcel of that.
Furthermore, David Greig’s book keeps the moral tone of Dahl’s book satisfyingly in place. And while he makes the odd choice that not everyone is going to agree with, it’s hard to see what more he could realistically have done. Matched up to the scale, ambition and scope of Sam Mendes’ production, this Charlie And The Chocolate Factory gives the sense of the giddy sweet shop it’s brought to the stage. It’s lively, bright, colourful, surprising, and a whole lot of fun. That it holds back on the sugar, and injects enough heart, is very much to be applauded, too. Warmly recommended.
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.
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