“Prove true, imagination, O prove true”

Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4

William Shakespeare

As an extremely greedy child (and a very sweet-toothed adult to be honest), ‘Charlie and the blogChocolate 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.

20140923_185403With 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 20140923_191326in 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.

blog 2One 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 andblog 3 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 blog 4typical 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’ blog 1number, 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’ sblog 5uffers 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!

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“Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it”

Henry IV part 1, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

    I’M BACK!

Having finally got myself a new laptop and starting on a new trying-to-see-as-much-theatre-as-possible spree, it’s finally time to resurrect Mingled Yarns and start helping you plebs sound vaguely intellectual and cultured at dinner parties once more (I say that in the most loving way possible).

In fact, if you’re looking for that kind of impressively political and literary, yet actually very easy to enjoy play, you can’t really go wrong with ‘1984’, Headlong‘s new production which transferred to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre after a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre and a 2014 Olivier Award nomination.

blog

First of all I should say, if you haven’t read ‘1984’ by George Orwell, please please read it before. As engrossing as this production is, the book is even better, I promise you. Also this review might be a little more understandable, as I’m going to be referring back to the differences between the two quite frequently.

The production itself is well-acted; I especially liked Mathew Spencer as Symes who captured the nervous energy of the society and who made the terrible concept of ‘Newspeak’ seem almost inevitable and coherent. Tim Dutton as O’Brien was also the perfect human face to Big Brother; seemingly kind but steely underneath.

Personally I felt that Winstonblog (played by Sam Crane), the protagonist of the story, whilst acted believably and well, was a cast a little too young. I’ve always pictured him in his forties, a bit battered, wrinkled and worn, not your natural revolutionary. The trouble with him being in his late twenties/early thirties is that his actions became very idealistic; he was set apart from everyone else right from the start of the play (revolution ‘lay in his way’ like in the titular quote; it was his natural destiny whenever he lived), rather than being a normal everyday citizen who just happens to become disillusioned with the society he has previously accepted unquestioningly after a chance incident.

This also had an effect on the relationship between Winston and Julia; to me, in the book this is purely a matter of rebelling against the system not of any true feelings. In this production, however, it seemed to mean and be a lot more than that. Maybe I’m misremembering the book, but I thought it implied had the two met under different circumstances, they would never have given each other a second glance. They are two completely separate characters who come together only to take down Big Brother in any way possible.

The set itself was very clever, particularly the way Julia and Winston’s time in the blog‘safe’ apartment was shown entirely through videos, which (*Spoilers!*) showed how unable anyone was to escape from the eyes of the Ministry of Love and Big Brother. The section where the apartment is raided and they are taken away was brilliant; the wall falling in, and the apartment being revealed as a TV show style set – oh, it was just everything I wanted it to be.

The torture scene in Room 101 was likewise incredibly powerful – not as bloody as I had anticipated, although brutal in its clinical efficiency, building up to the final, awful cruelty. Ugh those rats! By the end it was hard not to run on stage and force the cage from his mouth. I do wonder if that has ever happened…. I think the whole audience was just willing, urging Winston to betray Julia, which of course afterwards made us feel co-betrayers, also responsible for allowing the regime to continue, for surrendering, for preferring survival over revolution and principles.

The concept of ‘ooh look we could actually be living in 1984 now!’ was a bit labored for me. I get that it’s a very clever idea, something I would definitely enjoy studying and analysing in a class (woohoo English nerd time), but not one that necessarily translated that well on stage. It meant the production started off slowly and pretty confusingly; I understand that human nature repeats itself, I don’t need to be shown that a hundred times. However, the pace quickened as they started to focus more on the main story and by the end the references were fleeting but poignant. And I did love that Winston began his diary at the start by writing that day’s date – always exciting when you feel involved in some way!

blogTo end on a positive, the two minutes of hate were absolutely brilliantly terrifying. To have seven actors facing you and shouting and screaming and yelling and hurling insults and throwing chairs and hitting you over the head with a barrage of passionate hate was the most well-conceived, powerfully acted, chilling part of the entire play.

The production on the whole is exciting and thrilling, but occasionally a little too clever for its own good. Although looking back on this review it seems like there were many faults, these weren’t so noticeable it prevented me from enjoying the play. It builds pace and the second half is much the better one. Go and see it – but definitely read the book first if you don’t want to get lost (and just because it’s one of the best and most easily enjoyed classics in English Literature).

1984at Playhouse Theatre, West End (transfer from Almeida Theatre): 4/5 stars

 

“We that are true lovers run into strange capers”

As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 4

William Shakespeare

AKA My plan for a new webseries of ‘Northanger Abbey’

Friends and fans of my Facebook page will know that I am just a little bit obsessed with Pemberley Digital’s modern vlog-based adaptations of well-loved Jane Austen classics. PemberleyThe Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ came onto YouTube and into my heart last April, Welcome to Sanditon (based on Austen’s unfinished novel) ended in September, and the new series, Emma Approved’ has just started much to the excitement of both me, and the thousands of fans the shows have garnered. If you haven’t already, watch them. Not only do the protagonists have vlogs, there are spin-offs, Q&As, twitter accounts for each character… You will get obsessed, trust me.

But this, and the success of #AustenProject series (Joanna Trollope’s updating of ‘Sense and Sensibility’) got me thinking… How would I update one of my favourites, ‘Northanger Abbey‘, as a YouTube vlog-series?

So, whilst I should have been working, reading, being sociable, I instead formulated my very own master-plan for Northanger Abbey: the web series.
Pemberley Digital, you are welcome.

TITLE: Whatever Happened To Catherine Morland?catherine

Yeah, it’s a long one, but I feel this title sums up my premise pretty well. My first thought was about Catherine’s motive; why does she make these vlogs at all? Maybe this is something to d with personal experience, but my immediate reaction is: She’s on a gap year. According to Shmoop (my favourite revision site): “Northanger Abbey is essentially about pitfalls and perils of growing up, being in strange new places, and forging relationships with new people.” Sounds exactly like a gap year to me! So I think Catherine’s started these vlogs as a way of letting her family and friends know what she’s up to on her year off, like the now crazy-famous JacksGap’ channel.

dThe second element in the title is the reference to classic thriller ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ Catherine in the books is a huge fan of Ann Radcliffe’sThe Mysteries of Udolpho’. Although I suspect the modern version of this is more ‘Twilight’ than anything else, considering how controversial that particular book is, I think my Catherine would be a major fan of the whole horror/thriller genre. Being a huge wimp personally, I don’t know exactly what her favourite movie or book would be, but it’d probably be one of those really cheesy, innocent teenagers in a cabin in the forest type deal, and she’d reference this a lot in her videos. So that’s the other thing I wanted to update and bring in.

A final point about this: although I know a common way to modernize characters is to shorten their names (Elizabeth to Lizzie, for example), I think that, as a girl desperate to become “an heroine”, Catherine would think her full name was more sophisticated and more grown-up. Perhaps her family would still refer to her as ‘Cat’ or ‘Katie’ or ‘Cathy’, but this is something she finds extremely irritating; she’s trying to shake off her younger, tomboy-ish self, and put on this new persona of an elegant, adult, refined woman, and re-claiming her name is the first way she does this.

So now, moving onto the characters and main events of the story. If you haven’t yet read the amazing original and plan to, I would advise not reading too much more for fear of spoilers!

Catherine goes to Bath – Catherine gets invited to Bath by the Allens, who I think are family friends, with a particular liking for her. From the description of Bath in the book, I picture a modern-day version of it as a ski resort. A place where wealthy, middle and upper class people go to for a specific ‘season’, where it’s easy to pick get to know people very quickly, where there are frequent parties and beautiful surroundings, where many are there to see and be seen, and where romance can blossom in the blink of an eye. eThe Allens want Catherine there to accompany Mrs Allen on the easier slopes and chat to her in the cafes and restaurants while her husband explores more adventurous runs.

Isabella and John Thorpe – These two are your typical wannabee ‘Made In Chelsea’ types – though definitely nowhere near as rich as you have to be to get on that show. Their characters would be much the same as Austen wrote them; Isabella as great fun, flirty and very funny, but also manipulative and untrustworthy (a bit like Regina George), and John as loud, overbearing, dimwitted and rude – but in a comical way. Whereas in the book, all John talks about is horses and carriages, in the web series he’d obviously be obsessed with cars. These two would be so much fun to have in a vlog series – despite all their faults, or because of them in fact, they are some of the most amusing and entertaining characters in the novel.

Henry Tilney – Mr Tilney is possibly my favourite Austen hero of all. In fact, he’s one of my favourite heroes of all time. He’s witty, ironic, fcharming and intelligent, and likeable – much more fun than most heroes. Naturally, he too has his flaws; a touch of arrogance at times and completely inscrutable for most of the book, but overall *sigh* perfection. He and Catherine would meet at a party where she knows no one, as in the novel, and we’d all get to hear about it the morning after, as Catherine tried not to get over-excited about her HUGE GINORMOUS CRUSH ON HIM. (Note for future producers: I would have to be quite heavily involved in casting this one. Just so you know.)

Isabella and James – This is probably the biggest change I would make – a shot-gun engagement is possible but highly unlikely imho, so I think Isabella would instead agree to go off travelling with James (possible side series here!) Then, whilst they were slumming it somewhere having run out of money as students do, Captain Freddy Tilney would turn up in his private jet and whisk Isabella away for a romantic weekend in Europe together, leaving James heart-broken and forlorn. Then, of course, Isabella would get her comeuppance after Freddy ditches her back in Bath and takes another girl out the following weekend.

Northanger – I think Northanger would probably be a massive, antique chalet in the middle of the woods, so Catherine’s ‘horror genre alarm bell’ (yes, I’m patenting that) would flash on, as in the novel.g

The Tilney Family – Freddy, Henry’s older brother, is your typical rich play-boy who flies all over the world, wears designer sunglasses and seduces beautiful women before quickly dumping them. A bad-boy who starts to make us feel sympathetic towards Isabella. Eleanor, his sister, is the opposite; caring, good and a great friend. I’d spice her up a bit though, and perhaps make her an enterprising businesswoman, eager to take over the family firm. General Tilney is an ex-soldier who now runs a hugely successful business firm, but acts as if his family is a miniature army. He wants his children to marry into other big business families, which is why he’s not all that pleased after he finds out Catherine’s suburban, middle-class background.

Catherine goes home alone – This bit needs to have the shock factor a woman going home alone had in the 1800s. I think Catherine would have to make the extremely long journey back to her family by bus. Overnight. All by herself. If that doesn’t make her grow up a bit, I don’t know what will. (Side note: I know I haven’t covered the important Northanger part so much, but that’s because I don’t think much of it needs updating! Catherine and Henry slowing growing together, Catherine thinking something spooky is going in at Northanger and being terribly embarrassed when Henry discovers her naivety, etc. could all stay basically the same.)

General ‘forgives’ her – Again, Henry and Catherine’s getting together is sufficiently covered in the novel: he’d pursue her, they’d admit their feelings to each other, Henry would enounce his father for her, they’d kiss, thousands of viewers would spontaneously combust in front of their computers, blahblahblah. i

The real question is why does General Tilney take them back? I think it would be partly Eleanor pulling off a huge business deal (side-series?!) and partly him realizing the potential of Catherine’s vlogs and twitter – since I assume they’d be hugely popular by this time 😉 She suddenly becomes a credible businesswoman and investment in his eyes, and so he condones the relationship.

Everyone gets what they deserve and we all finish the series happy and fulfilled – well that’s the plan, anyway…

Thoughts?