Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4
As an extremely greedy child (and a very sweet-toothed adult to be honest), ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl was and is one of my favourite books of all time. So let’s be clear here, I know this book backwards; I listened to the amazing audiotapes read by the author himself; I watched both movies (and still maintain the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton one is better than the Gene Wilder version – controversial, I know…); and, of course, I read and re-read the novels over and over again. Suffice to say, this book is like my child. You change it, you fail imho. It’s so perfect, you don’t need to change anything.
With this is mind, you can imagine how I felt about a ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ musical being announced; 90% a ball of frustration and nerves, 10% excitement and curiosity. In this mini-fit of confused feelings, I never got round to booking tickets…
But luckily for me, through #LDNTheatreBloggers and OfficialTheatre.com I scored a cheeky free ticket for last night’s performance and finally, just after the 50th anniversary of the book, got to see Sam Mendes’ vision at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for myself.
Let me just start by saying, this theatre is gorgeous; large, ornate, and with pretty great eye-lines, at least from where we sitting. Plus it has a Shakespeare statue! I bought myself a Wonka bar in lieu of a programme as it seemed more appropriate – unfortunately no whipple scrumptious fudgemallow delight, only millionaire’s shortbread flavour. It was £3; what you’d expect from a West End show, although I wish they’d had more flavours, and I did think it was a little hypocritical when in the play they took the mickey out of posh people willing to pay £4.50 for a Wonka bar each. Still, it was exciting to have it.
As the lights go down, the music starts, the curtain sweeps up and the thrill begins in the pit of your stomach, the first thing that catches the eye is the set. Mark Thompson has done a fantastic job overall here. The Buckets’ ramshackle house, with the noise and lights of a train going across above; the looming, lit-up factory itself; the various houses of the horrible children; and, of course, the many different rooms inside the factory are all very well designed. Rooted in reality, but over-exaggerated, they were witty and fun.
One of my favourite moments was seeing the infamous Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee for the first time. A huge TV screen descended from the roof, behind the Bucket family household, with a presenter announcing the news. Then the sheet at the front of the screen would descend, to reveal a perfectly created mini world for each of the children and their parents, plus ‘Cherry Sundae’, the reporter.
Unfortunately, my favourite room, the Chocolate room, complete with molten chocolate waterfall, river, edible flowers, delicious grass, was something of a disappointment. Really, how could it not be? I expected it to at least take over the whole stage. The Inventing Room, however, made up for this, with some adorable Oompa Loompas (no, I won’t tell you how they do it!), funny machines and lots of bangs and explosions. I would have also liked a little more in terms of the transitions through the factory. Naturally they needed time to re-set the dramatic and intricate stage, but it was just a big screen projected with pictures of corridors and lifts and rivers, which I thought was a little basic. The animatronic squirrels in the Nut Room were brilliant, though, and the ‘punishments’ of each of the children were very cleverly done, especially Violet turning into a blueberry.
Talking of the children… the cast I saw were excellent; they got the attitudes of each child perfectly. Rhys Lambert was adorable as Charlie, and I especially loved Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee – although I’m not sure exactly which actors I saw; it’s so difficult to tell! Their ‘parents’ were also very funny, with Josefina Gabrielle playing a hilariously neurotic Mrs Teavee and Clive Carter as the typical money-grabbing, snobby Mr Salt. The Grandparents brought lots of characteristic Dahl-ish dark humour to the stage, with plenty of darkly funny jokes about dying in there for the adults.
In fact, that’s the major thing that this musical gets spot on: the mixture of childish excitement and imagination and much more mature witty, black comedy for the grown-ups. It is definitely a musical for all the family, and seeing the lit-up faces and dancing heads of the children around me kind of suggested that this is one to see your own children/siblings/cousins/nieces/nephews/grandchildren, rather than on your own, like many musicals. As the show’s catchphrase goes: it has to be believed to be seen. Their wonder adds to your own enjoyment.
My main issue with this production was the music; not that it’s bad, but that it isn’t memorable. The only one of those songs I came out remembering was the already-famous ‘Pure Imagination’ number, which I think is a shame considering how much rhythm and rhyme the Oompa Loompa songs in the book already have. The real bugbear here was that I just couldn’t hear the words, and they are just so important in this book; they are a crucial point, carrying the messages Dahl wanted to get across in a really funny, witty, disgusting way, and this was really missing from the musical; I could barely hear a word of Violet’s ‘Bubble-gum Duchess’ rap at the beginning. Had I not known who her character was already, I wouldn’t have been that much clearer after the song, had it not been for the heaps of attitude of the actress.
A note of warning for all musical-writers: just because it’s a musical doesn’t mean everything has to be in song. ‘Les Mis’ did it successfully, yes, but it’s often nice to have a bit of talking. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ suffers from this; the entire first act is build-up to the factory, and we don’t actually go inside until the second half. This works actually, but the first act is just too long, and there are several songs throughout the show that just aren’t necessary. Some of the best moments come from witty one-off lines from Wonka or the Grandparents, and I would have happily cut out one or two songs and replaced them with more dialogue.
Alex Jennings as Willy Wonka is great; perhaps a touch too normal at first, but he soon gets the weird and wacky inventor spiel going, and inhabits the purple velvet tails, green trousers, striped cane and top hat perfectly. He gets the ‘threatening’ vibe down to a tee, whilst being this wonderful and exciting figure that you admire and fear at the same time.
Overall, this is a fun trip out for a family. It’s not one I’d see again, but I’m glad I’ve seen it. The spirit of Dahl is there is the dark comedy and the wonderful sets, but at the same time I wish they’d done more. If you love the book as much as I do, this musical can’t possibly live up to the magic of the novel. However, it’s a fun and entertaining night out, the cast are also talented and the Great Glass Elevator moment is lovely.
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane: 3/5 stars
P.S. A small plea: Just because this is a musical about food does not mean it is ok to constantly rustle and crumple and scrunch and munch at your own confections and candies. Maybe we had a particularly noisy audience, I don’t know, but we can hear you even over the songs on stage, and it’s really annoying!