Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka with Jack Costello as Charlie
and cast members. (Photo by Helen Maybanks)
Review by Peter Brown
18 June 2013
“In the beginning, there was the bean!”. So declares the narrator of the semi-educational cartoon which kicks-off this new musical version of Roald Dahl's story, which first saw the light of day back in 1964.
Naively, I had thought this was going to be one of those shows packed to the rafters with swarms of little people – or children if you prefer – munching their way through all the confectionary the Theatre Royal can muster. And, indeed, there was more than a fair smattering of children spread around the audience, complete with parents in tow. But, more remarkably, there were plenty of adults in evidence too and without the camouflage of kids to explain their presence. That seems to indicate the general fondness and regard for Mr Dahl's story which adults harbour, presumably from their childhood. And it is still quite a compelling story, even if its message seems to be that naughty children get rough justice, and 'good' children get their just deserts or, in this case, chocolate.
Sam Mendes's hugely inventive production is almost overwhelming in its sheer scale and complexity, but magical nonetheless. Mark Thompson's stunning design incorporates a huge number of scenes which get even more impressive when the story transfers in the second half to the interior of Wonka's mysterious factory. When we first meet the central character, Charlie Bucket, he is rummaging through an enormous pile of scrap and rubbish. The action then moves to Charlie's dilapidated house which is built almost entirely of corrugated iron. The Buckets are a poor family and Charlie and his parents share their home with Charlie's bedridden grandparents.
Enormous gates guard the entrance to Wonka's chocolate empire and the factory itself has windows that light up with silhouettes of people inside or chocolate wrappers. Inside we find a whole host of characters and machinery. Automaton as well as gigantic dancing squirrels, a gaggle of diminutive, tap-dancing Oompa-Loompas, projections of the interior of the vast factory with its endless corridors and floors, robots – the list is almost endless. There are also some nice touches of detail too such as the wisps of smoke which puff from chimneys in the distance, and there are some neat illusions – one in particular with a paper aeroplane which is simple but astonishing.
Four young actors take turns as Charlie Bucket, and all the other child roles are similarly shared. On the occasion that I saw the show Tom Klenerman was Charlie and a fine job he made of it too, producing an endearing and refreshingly appealing performance. I am always astounded by the professionalism of many young actors, and the extensive experience they have acquired. Interestingly, though, Master Klenerman is not one of your jobbing child actors who has been in everything imaginable. No, this is Tom's first stab at singing and dancing. So, all the more remarkable then that he won the chance to take on this demanding role. Among the adult actors, Douglas Hodge is the bossy and somewhat sinister Willy Wonka, who seems to relish dispatching children to stickily ignominious ends, and Nigel Planer is in fine form as Grandpa Joe.
Overall, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is terrific fun, amazing in many respects, and a production approaching monumental proportions. Making comparisons always seems unfair, but it's hard not to when another Dahl show - 'Matilda the Musical' – is still in the West End. To be fair, though, they are quite different with their own distinctive appeal. On the whole, I think I prefer Matilda, largely because of its humour, but there is also plenty of subtle humour in 'Charlie' as well, so it is a tough call between the two.
What the popular press had to say...
"It only rarely touches the heart or stimulates the imagination. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Mendes brings a cinematic sweep to the party that propels proceedings at a rapid pace, overcoming any shortcomings in spectacle and wonder..
Alun Palmer for The Daily Mirror
"The score by the Hairspray combo of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is tuneful and wholly unmemorable...Very engaging but rarely elating, this show is a skillful confection that doesn't quite produce the inspired sugar-rush of magic that's required. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Delivers visual ravishment and a warm glow .
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"Even if it doesn’t quite live up to the early hype it’s a tremendously inventive show. .
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"A triumph of exuberant stagecraft.
Simon Edge for The Express
"The success of Sam Mendes's production lies in its reminder that, for all the razzle-dazzle of Mark Thompson's sets and costumes, Dahl's story is essentially a moral fable.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
External links to full reviews from popular press
Telegraph - Independent - Guardian