Charlie & The Chocolate Factory @ The Theatre Royal Drury Lane – A Review

Directed by Sam Mendes and penned by David Greig, a new musical version of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory is currently taking the West End by the throat and force-feeding it jelly beans and marshmallows…

This stage version of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory starts with a rather neat set of animated drawings by Quentin Blake, which set the scene for this story of a virtuous young boy who sees all of his dreams come true. The curtain rises on the ramshackle home of Charlie and his family and, set in and around the corrugated iron and cobwebs, the audience is first introduced to his mom and dad played by Alex Clatworthy and Jack Shalloo (I last saw Shalloo in the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s Christmas panto last year so his star is clearly rising!). Then it’s the turn of the grandparents in their huge bed – Nigel Planer as the optimistic Grandpa Joe, Roni Page as Grandma Josephine, Billy Boyle as the cynical Grandpa George paired with Myra Sands as Grandma Georgina.

Although the set is necessarily rather dour and depressing before the interval we do get a few early glimpses at the wondrous creations that are to follow. As we join Charlie (played by one of four young lads) on his hopelessly optimistic quest to obtain a ‘golden ticket’ a huge TV drops down to announce the winners as they are revealed around the world – to gasps from the audience the screen folds back each time to reveal the actors behind it – the familiar families of the Gloops, the Salts, the Beauregards and the Teavees (gales of laughter greet the Bavarian Gloops when they start thigh-slapping to the strains of the oompah band that are also on the stage). Little bits of stage trickery also start to appear – a paper plane thrown from the stage by the ‘mysterious old tramp’ of the first act inexplicably shoots right up into the Gods…

The first half is rather slow-paced and colourless for the most part – I’m pretty sure that this is a deliberate ploy to emphasise the wildly colourful and spectacular Wonka factory scenes that follow after the interval. I do worry about the short attention spans of young viewers however, whose patience is no doubt strained to breaking point by the end of this first hour – in fact I did notice quite a bit of squirming and raised voices in nearby seats it has to be said.

Thankfully, after the break everything goes into super-sugary Technicolor overdrive, and the fine-voiced Douglas Hodge finally gets the opportunity to shine as Willy Wonka in a very effective portrayal of that oddest of characters – a man who is both fatherly and sinister at one and the same time. When it comes to the sets even adults will be amazed by the incredible ingenuity of designer Mark Thompson, who has created the most elaborate backdrops to match the gruesome fates of the greedy and selfish kids – you will believe in man-sized squirrels and incredible shrinking rays by the end of the show. When it comes to stage sleight of hand, if anyone can tell me how you levitate a large perspex telephone box complete with passengers out across the stage with no visible means of support then I’m all ears…

The ingenuity of the Oompah Loompah costumes also deserves praise – none of the actors playing these parts are height-challenged, but the very effective costuming (again by Mark Thompson) leaves you convinced that they’re all about 4 feet tall…

Does Charlie & The Chocolate Factory have any flaws? Well given that it’s billed as a musical the songs are pretty much forgettable barring ‘Pure Imagination’, which this stage version puts right at the end – perhaps acknowledging the fact that the other material is rather passe? Let’s be honest here – no-one is going to book a ticket to see Charlie & The Chocolate Factory so that they can hum the tunes on the way home – this is no Les Mis or Phantom. What they will be hoping for is a jaw-dropping visual spectacle the likes of which London’s West End has never seen – and that is exactly what they’ll get, dusted with cocoa and buckets and buckets of hundreds and thousands…

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory is playing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and is taking bookings right through until late Spring 2014 – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the run is extended, although it’s a shame about the songs…