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CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

charlie and the chocolate factory

There once lived a towering creative genius with the power to change children’s lives, who believed in both embracing the euphoria of silliness and relishing the very nasty consequences of natural justice. That statement applies to Willy Wonka, beloved titan of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but also to his inventor, Roald Dahl, who claimed that there was no difference between his children’s books and his unpleasant-twist-in-the-tail stories for adults; in both, humour and heart are derived from the struggle for survival in his deliciously dark view of the world. Unfortunately, the new, sickly-sweet West End musical adaptation of his most famous work is missing that vital ingredient.

Unlike the award-laden, gloriously anarchic Matilda, which Charlie has the misfortune to follow, this is a terribly po-faced affair. Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly did benefit from inheriting a protagonist who is as much revolutionary leader as she is bookworm, but they also found innovative theatrical ways of dramatising her inner life and letting her drive the story.

charlie and the chocolate factoryCharlie, by contrast, is even more irritatingly upbeat goodie-two-shoes here than on paper, more likely to croon that the sun will come out tomorrow than that you might need to be a little bit naughty. Book writer David Greig retains Dahl’s strong moral fable, but fails to get around the problem of Charlie’s passivity; rather than earning his eventual victory, it comes to him through astonishing luck and persistent inaction. Regrettably, a climactic Wonka song emphasises Charlie’s shortcomings when he celebrates “all the things you aren’t that make you what you are”.

Thus Charlie the wide-eyed Dickensian urchin is constantly upstaged by his nightmarish contemporaries, introduced brilliantly in a series of wry vignettes. There is some clever updating of the gruesome foursome, notably Violet’s transformation into an obnoxious R&B-touting Kardashian-in-training and Mike’s rendering as an ADHD computer-game obsessive, driving his poor mother (a scene-stealing Iris Roberts) to self-medication.

That does raise puzzling questions about time period, however, as the Buckets seem to live in a steampunk shack in a back street of Oliver!, home to travelling sweet stalls and genial Mockney extras. Relentlessly nice Mum and Dad (be warned: schmaltzy ballads ahead) house four bedridden pensioners and a small child with nary a grumble; have they given up applying for benefits, or is this a post-Cameron dystopian vision? We are given a long, long time to ponder this strange status quo, as we don’t even enter the factory until the second half.

charlie and the chocolate factory

Once we do, it becomes apparent that the real star of Sam Mendes’ show is the multi-million-pound production. Towering flats, visual trickery and a fleet of puppets are utilised in a number of jaw-dropping set pieces, but it’s more feature film squeezed onto a stage than truly effective theatre. Tellingly, David Greig said his natural approach would be “four actors and a ribbon”, which would be a great reflection of the musical’s apparent dominant theme, often stated but rarely demonstrated, that you can be rich in imagination rather than in possessions, taking joy in conjuring “something out of nothing”. This musical Charlie is rich in scene changes, but poor in genuine emotional engagement.

Every character has a go at informing us what a dangerous nut this Wonka is, yet an underused Douglas Hodge is more avuncular tour guide longing for retirement than fascinatingly ambiguous presence. Dahl’s Wonka is destroyer as well as saviour, his eccentricity barely concealing underlying menace; if the author disowned the 1971 film version for “weakening the bite”, one wonders what he would make of this further sanitisation and the generalised sentimentality of American duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s forgettable songs.

The lavish production values and brand recognition will doubtlessly translate to packed family audiences, and there are plenty of enjoyable moments here to justify its success. However, given the dynamite source material of and about a constantly inventive maverick, this ploddingly literal adaptation proves a disappointment, leaving us no space to dream. Too bland for my taste.

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Reviewed 30/05/13/

By Marianka Swain

Currently booking until 30th November 2013
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, WC2.

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For more information and to book visit www.charlieandthechocolatefactory.com

Top and Middle Photo by Helen Maybanks
Bottom Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg


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