REVIEW: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the new musical of Roald Dahl’s most celebrated work, is meant to fire an unforgettable memory.
But as much as you are willing all-round nice bloke Sam Mendes on with his fresh production, waiting for a spectacle perhaps on an even keel with the stagecraft of Wicked or the energy of Hairspray, there’s something absent.
It’s OK but, to be frank, it’s a little soulless – and OK isn’t such a good return for the outlay here.
It’s as if they had looked at Gene Wilder titting about as Willy Wonka in the 1971 film and decided to ignore all of the things that made that enduring memory sugary, but more importantly, lovable.
For sure, it is hard to flood a West End stage with a chocolate river but at times the Wonka factory – a place every kid dreamed of exploring at least once before they got to big school – feels more like a forgotten dungeon wing of Pentonville than a secret fantasy world.
We may have been unfairly indoctrinated that Oompa-Loompas should have Essex tans and lime hair, but newly imagined here – possibly as mini-moustachioed pizza chefs, it’s hard to tell – they are more of a distraction than a key component.
If the intention is to create some dark mystique, it’s ultimately misguided because it sucks the life out of terrific performances, particularly from Nigel Planer, omnipresent these days on London’s musical theatre landscape, as Grandpa Joe. The kids are good too, although they are on rotation and I can’t vouch for your Veruca Salt being as good as my Veruca Salt. If she is… good news.
Douglas Hodge is not an awful Wonka either, but he is not armed with much ammo in terms of new songs. There was a kind of murmur when he began singing Pure Imagination near the end, a song from the Wilder film, which suggested the lack of bounce in the new score had made people reach for an old memory.
The story, of course, with its message of comeuppance and greed still chimes. The title alone should sell tickets.
But our universal romance with Roald Dahl’s book renders us fussy too, all of us wanting our own imagination for Wonka’s dreamworld to become reality. That’s why it’s a tough gig. Mendes doesn’t leave us famished but it’s not an everlasting showstopper.