Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

TheatrePeople.com, June 2013

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Review by Glenn Rice

A little boy throws a paper plane from the stage and it flies smoothly all the way up to the Dress Circle. The audience gasp that accompanies this bit of theatrical magic won’t be the last to go up during this performance of the West End’s newest mega-musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The show's origins in Roald Dahl's classic children's book are acknowledged at its start with a lovely animated sequence by Dahl's illustrator Quentin Blake, projected on colossal digital screens that later serve as moving set backdrops.

Writer David Greig provides a largely faithful adaptation of Dahl’s story about poor but good-hearted little lad Charlie Bucket, who finds a golden ticket that wins him and his Grandpa Joe a trip to mysterious confectioner Willy Wonka’s far-out Chocolate Factory. Greig also includes some favourite images and moments from previous movie adaptations.

Four bratty children join Charlie for the ride, and meet poetic justice in a dreamlike morality play for kids that’s by turns day-glo and dark. Children, as Dahl himself noted, like 'strong meat'. The ones sitting near me obviously loved it. 

In an era of CGI-fatigue and underwhelming gimmicks, we're inclined to take a step back when the latest spectacular, state-of-the-art production tries to separate us from our hard-earned dosh. Viz: stage blockbusters The Lord Of The Rings and Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which served up plenty of grinding machinery but not much in the way of humanity or a decent script.

In the case of director Sam Mendes’ eye-popping take on CATCF however, lessons have been learned. The balance is right and the hype is - for once - largely justified.

Its sets and effects are hugely complex, and Mendes deserves credit for coordinating things seamlessly. For all its pleasurable distractions, the show flows smoothly from one set piece to the next, and it’s an unfocused child indeed who’ll lose the thread. No doubt Mendes' recent gig directing 007 epic Skyfall was useful prep. 

Realising that shows need to be really, really big if they’re going to work in the hangar-like Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, set and costume designer Mark Thompson fills every inch of the stage with one enormous, gobsmacking tableau after another.

Dahl’s book is structured as a series of trippy fairground rides to begin with, so Thompson’s expressionistic junkyard landscapes, huge TV sets, teleportation chambers and neon Oompa-Loompas seem apt rather than gratuitous. It’s spectacular stuff, but witty and ingenious. After a fizzy but relatively sedate Act 1, the full force of Thompson's talent asserts itself in an exuberantly psychedelic second half. 

The humans in the show acquit themselves with verve amid the whizz-bangery. Following in the footsteps of screen Willy Wonkas Gene Wilder (sloe-eyed, avuncular) and Johnny Depp (effeminate, psychotic), Hodge plays Wonka for the first time as a full-blown Brit. Eccentric and boyish but without the inner danger of his predecessors, Hodge’s life-loving man-child keeps proceedings firmly centred. 

Nigel Planer is affable and funny as Grandpa Joe, and Isaac Rouse (one of the four young actors who rotate the title role) crucially makes Charlie lovable, not saccharine. 

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs pastiche styles from hip hop to punk. They're enjoyable in the moment and drive the story well, but their take-home status is debatable. Ironically, it's a classic number borrowed from the Wilder movie that you’re likely to be singing after the curtain falls.

No matter - the show itself is the real star here. With moments of magic both literal and metaphorical, it's a production you’ll admire for its sheer creativity if you’re out of short trousers, and that’ll suck you in and short-circuit a few brain cells if you’re not.  

If your kids are gagging to find out what giant squirrels and Oompa-Loompas get up to in real life, the evidence on offer in this lavish, funny and very enjoyable show won’t disappoint.