The story of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is well known from the beloved children’s novel by Roald Dahl: a poor, malnourished child living in destitute lucks out and finds a golden ticket to visit the magical world of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, after which his life will never be the same again. This new musical adaptation playing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane has music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, a book by award-winning playwright and adaptor David Greig and is directed by Sam Mendes, also known for his hugely successful movies including Skyfall and American Beauty.
After a delightful animated introduction to how chocolate is made, we start the show with young Charlie Bucket rifling through trash looking for treasures to take home to his family. The young actor is wonderful and does a great job with the character, although it would have been nice to see some more complexity to Charlie who is poor and hungry. His relationship with his family, including the four grandparents sharing a bed, is wonderful and believable. The storytelling scene which includes bed choreography is very enjoyable and the grandparents are wonderful. You don’t really get the sense that this is a family that is suffering from poverty and hunger until the weary parents of Charlie return home with no money.
The family watches the news of the golden ticket with its forthcoming prize to five lucky children on a television set that is powered by electricity generated by Charlie’s father peddling on a bike. Behind the Bucket home set appears a massive television, that opens to reveal each of the four finders of the golden tickets from around the world. This section is in part very funny – Mike Teavee’s mother is especially wonderful – but is also a bit too long. The kids are great to watch but it is at times difficult to make out what they’re saying, in particular, the two that are rapping who are hard to make out.
As four tickets are found, Charlie falls into despair, that no stories or comfort from his parents can get him out of, and you feel for this young couple who are struggling to keep seven people alive on very little money. The duet by the parents where they both sing that the other would know how to make them feel better is one of the most moving moments of the show, and this number more than anything brings their desperate situation more to the surface, something the show otherwise takes a very shallow view of.
But wait! Lady luck drops a pound note and Charlie buys himself a chocolate, which as we all know contains the final golden ticket. It is finally time for what we’re all here to see, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The biggest problem for the show is that we have to wait far too long for Willy Wonka to appear, which he doesn’t until the very end of the first act. He is, however, worth the wait, and is every bit as mental and magnificent as you expect. Douglas Hodge as Wonka is charismatic and unhinged, at once genius and a bit frightening.
The second act is our visit to the chocolate factory, where one by one the children don’t listen to warnings and end up in trouble they will never quite recover from. I will leave it to the audience to discover how the show solves how to shrink a child and put him into a television, make another into a massive blueberry and get a third to be attacked by squirrels, suffice to say it’s really well done and the audience loved it.
The ensemble of Oompa-Loompas is hilarious. The actors are adult normal-sized actors with some magic applied to them to make them look half their size. Every one of them is bursting with energy and joy, and with great choreography, you enjoy every moment they are on stage. There are great moments from the minor characters as well, as Mike Teevee’s mother gets more neurotic through the visit to the factory, her eventual breakdown and dance with the Oompa-Loompas is a thing of beauty.
This adaptation for the stage is stunning to look at. The sets, from the detailed mess of the Bucket household to the outstanding rooms in Willy Wonka’s factory, are some of the best you can see in the West End today. It was movie magic for the stage, with great detail and care. The audience was awestruck at moments, particularly when a paper plane flew across the room. So simple, and so effective.
But with all its magic, the show seems a bit too shallow, especially in how it approaches the poverty of the Bucket family. In our present time where poverty is becoming a bigger issue, sitting in a West End theatre where it’s played for laughs seems cruel. Instead of being impressed with how the Bucket family are coping with their lot, you never get a feeling that this is a family that is actually starving, which is very clear from the book, where Charlie has the first of two chocolates in a manner of inhaling it, because he is so hungry he can’t slow down.
Sure, this level of reality doesn’t work well on an evening out with the family, and the audience jumped to their feet for a standing ovation at the end of the show, which is something you don’t often see on a Monday night. All in all it’s a solid show, and the second act is a lot of fun, which not even a delayed start due to technical problems could bring down.
Review by Tori Jo Lau