I guess it’s hard for anyone to get themselves to Charlie, or that chocolate factory, in a condition of naivity. Ignorance cannot survive in a national bloodstream so awash with Roald Dahl’s most popular confection.
Let me get the special pleading out of the way first. It’s a standing joke among my children that I am a dead ringer for Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the 1971 movie. At least one of their friends refused to believe that I wasn’t him. I don’t get it myself, but I had to accept there might be something in it when Wilder came to our local theatre a few years ago to appear in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and I kept on being asked for my, or rather his, autograph. “What d’you mean you’re not him! Don’t be ridiculous.”
It – the Dahl story – has never gone away, and why should it. The film brought it and its author to a fresh generation of consumers. This in turn stimulated the book sales and led, through the insatiable logic of West End hunger, to the stage show. As many less-than-enthusiastic critics observed last year when the Sam Mendes production opened, Charlie The Musical’s problem was that it wasn’t Matilda. It had to some extent become a victim of the Dahl brand’s astounding success with a new line.
So the writers of the music and lyrics – Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman – aren’t Tim Minchin, but then Tim Minchin isn’t Stephen Sondheim, at least not yet. Part of the criticism was that the tunes lacked originality; as Steve Brown was to find out from the reaction to his music for I Can’t Sing, this is the occupational hazard of composers setting out to ape a variety of styles.
I caught Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane with my twelve-year-old son. He happens to be an actor and singer – was in Sound of Music in Regent’s Park last year (yes, his mother and I were Von Trapped for the summer) – and he has views about these things. He would; he is a – what’s the word I’m looking for – a pro.
As for me, I just wanted it to showcase Dahl’s particular strength, which is to be on the kids’s side without patronising them; to feel, intuit, remember his way into their heads and to characterise incumbents of adulthood’s weird estate accordingly.
I was not disappointed. What’s more, it’s the production’s vaunted lavishness that brings this off, sequence after sequence; the wonderful live enactments of the TV coverage of the Golden Ticket quest in a gigantic raised screen; the amazing innards of the chocolate factory with its Wagnerian squirrel chorus of nut-checkers; the spectacular nemesis of greedy-pig Augustus Gloop; above all the astounding routines of the multi-tasking Oompa-Loompas. Hard though I studied the deft illusions of their movements, the sleight-of-limb trickery, I was more or less permanently wrong-footed by them. Childlike wonder? Yes, I suppose that’s exactly what was being manufactured for me before my very eyes.
This is as it should be. We are seeing a – let’s face it – hard-edged, capitalistic world of mass production through a larky rainbow lens. There’s been skulduggery; industrial espionage had closed the place. The figure presiding over this pretty frightening, sheer-walled urban cliff of a factory is as wonky as his name would have us believe. But he is sinister too, as grown-up Dahleks tend to be if they are not just the powerless old presences of your bedridden grandparents. If he’s going to be on your – that is, on the children’s – side, then don’t expect normal, regular, Western postwar muscular decency.
A tricky assignment for Douglas Hodge’s successor as Wonka, Alex Jennings. With his countless appearances for the National, the Vic, the RSC, the Peter Hall, you have to class him as Straight Actor, with few serious outbreaks of wackiness in a thirty-year-career. The technique stands him in good stead, allowing him to enact the Imagination song as much as sing it, and to assume the authority of distance when he needs to.
Quite how this show manages to produce a cycle of suspense and delight on the back of the World’s Most Blown Secret (Charlie wins the grand prize) is a mystery. Easily solved – it’s the dazzle of the digressions along the way. Not to mention the energy. All this without the big downside of sweet-eating, now that the dentists are abandoning drill-and-fill.
What I really want to know is; what does he think of it, this twelve-year-old of mine. He’s fairly typical of his age, and doesn’t give it away. “Yeah,” he nods. “Cool.” I tell you, that’s worth volumes.
Review by Alan Franks
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Age Restrictions: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is recommended for a general audience. The show is suitable for children aged 6 and over. All persons entering the theatre, regardless of age, must have a ticket. Babes-in-arms will not be admitted. All children must be old enough to occupy their own seats.
Show Opened: 22nd May 2013