Tom Klenerman (Charlie) in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. Credit - Helen Maybanks.

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory:
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Reviewed by David Shadwick

What’s the golden rule of a job interview? Make a good impression from the minute you walk in the room. It’s a well-known fact that employers tend to have their minds made up within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone. Theatre is no different. The first thirty seconds went by – even, dare I say, the first thirty minutes of this new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book – and my mind really wasn’t made up.

Sam Mendes's lavish production is a little too leisurely in getting going, and could do with a few ‘artistic tweaks’ to grab our attention a little more robustly. Starting with a rather uninspiring AV about where chocolate comes from does little to excite, and so by the time we eventually meet little Charlie Bucket and the rest of his family, it’s all a bit of an anti-climax.

Set Designer, Mark Thompson, delivers a monochromic looking first act which perfectly matches the rather grey existence of the Bucket family, living in squalor in a very run down abode under the railway arches. Both sets of grandparents spend most of their time bed ridden, but somehow manage to make the most of their sedentary predicament and deliver some clever ‘bed-ography’ and amusing moments. Nigel Planner, in particular, makes Grandpa Joe a wonderfully loveable old eccentric.

With a smallish cast (particularly for a big budget musical), and being dominated by child actors, they do occasionally look a little lost on the enormous stage and at times are overpowered by the sheer enormity of the set, playing space and production values.

I did love the over-sized television set, an ingenious way of introducing us to the four lucky (and revolting) golden ticket winners; the ghastly obese Augustus Gloop, precocious and tutu-clad Veruca Salt, gum chewing chav Violet Beauregarde and the obnoxious TV addict Mike Teavee all with their equally annoying parents, as they prepare to set off for their tour of the infamous Chocolate Factory.

But ultimately it’s Charlie we care for, and there are too many side-steps, distractions and musical numbers to endure before that final golden ticket is in his hand. I had an urge to press a fast forward button and cut to the chase.

Thankfully act two does shift into another gear and provides a lot more fun, colour and spectacle. Once the imposing gates of the factory are opened, and Wonka ushers us is uttering that immortal word ‘welcome’, it’s like wandering into a stunning magical wonderland. It’s visual feast for the eyes. You couldn’t ask for more ‘wow’ factor.

There was plenty of fun to be had watching the clever and artistic ‘disposal’ of the four unbearable tickets winners as they were sucked away, blown up, reduced to a midget or set upon by a squad of over grown squirrels.

I found the eventual reveal of those loveable Oompa-Loompas a bit of a let-down. Being half human and half puppet, (with the actors shuffling around on their knees) kept them rather static, and devoid of any imaginative staging. I always thought there was an endless army of these cheery little orange faced chaps – so being faced with just eight white faced cherubs, it looked and felt like we’d been rather short changed.

There’s a darker more adult side to Dahl’s book, and this production went some way in finding those layers, but just lifted the lid rather than removing it.

There is much to savour in this big box of family confectionary, no matter your taste in chocolate (white, milk or dark), but it wasn’t quite my chocoholic dream.

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