Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - The Musical Review

Two years on from its starry West End premiere in June 2013, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has earned its place as a popular family and schools attraction. And even if it doesn't quite reach the same ground-breaking theatrical heights as Matilda, another musical based on a Roald Dahl story, there's plenty to deliver a memorable theatrical experience nonetheless.

The biggest star of the show remains designer Mark Thompson's startling, imaginative sets, that conjure the right Dickensian gloom for the black-and-white scenes set in the eponymous hero's impoverished home life — where dad is unemployed, the elderly family relatives share beds and electricity to power the television is generated by cycling really hard on a stationary bicycle — but then spring into vivid 3D colour for the scenes set in the factory.

There's a lot that's truly amazing here, from Augustus Gloop's fall into the chocolate pool and being sucked down a tube to Veruca Salt's encounter with giant squirrels, and of course the stunning visualisation of the Oompa-Loompas that staff the factory.

But if the sets are a visual seduction, the performances offer a different kind of emotional one, from the quiet, sweet vulnerability of the young child actor playing Charlie (four of them share the role), to the insinuating strangeness of factory owner Willy Wonka, now newly being played by Jonathan Slinger. Like his predecessors Douglas Hodge and Alex Jennings, he is also a notable Shakespearean actor, and brings real authority and danger to the role.

It is, in some ways, a slightly old-fashioned musical, not least in its music hall like references that pay tribute, consciously or not, to the English tradition of Lionel Bart (whose Oliver! recently played this same stage). But the show is given a fresh and funny new spin by director Sam Mendes and his choreographer Peter Darling who keep the action spinning forward with effortless grace after a slightly slow start.


Our rating: 3 / 5

Thursday, June 26, 2014

There's plenty to engage the eye in the spectacular stage version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, relentlessly directed by Sam Mendes and ravishingly designed by Mark Thompson, some songs to engage the ear, and a captivating boy actor playing Charlie to capture the heart. But despite these definite pluses, the show has uncertain lurches in tone and tension in its alternately clumsy and captivating telling of its familiar story.

Of course most of us know that Charlie will get his golden ticket that forms the entire progress of the first act and enables him to visit Willy Wonka's mysterious confectionary factory, and we also know that his fellow-winners will get despatched in turn during that second act visit. The surprises come in how each of these are shown. The winners are shown a little tediously as live television broadcasts staged from within a giant onstage TV box; by the time the fourth win comes around, you're ready to say 'enough already'.

Far more successful are the second act scenes in the factory, mainly thanks to the eye-popping lavishness of Thompson's sets. Sam Mendes, fresh from directing Skyfall, the most successful Bond film of all time, makes the sky the limit here, too, most notably with what looks like a levitating phone box that young Charlie and Willy Wonka hover over the stage in. There seems to be a requirement that something in a musical flies nowadays, whether it is a car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a helicopter in Miss Saigon or the title character in Mary Poppins.

I only wish the show flew higher emotionally. It is full of splash and spectacle, with a set that whisks the audience effortlessly from one stunningly realised environment to another, and creates a troupe of weirdly wonderful Oompa-Loompas (the tiny factory workers that slave for Wonka) that are wittily imagined. You can certainly see where all the money has been spent (and also who is pulling their strings). But some of the inflated visual parade is at the expense of charm that gets drowned in the endless parade of effects.

It sometimes feels like gorging on too much chocolate; it becomes a bit indigestible, as if it is a very posh pantomime. This is also not a factory that would pass health and safety rules, given the frequently lethal accidents that befall its young visitors, from being swallowed up whole by a suction pipe and being attacked by dangerous squirrels to being turned into mini-versions of themselves.

But you can't help succumbing to the tremendous performances of a tightly drilled ensemble of adult and children actors alike, with Alex Jennings newly leading the company as a Willy Wonka that resembles Joel Grey channelling Alan Bennett.

Broadway composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman seem to be channelling Lionel Bart (who wrote Oliver!) at times in their vibrant music hall inspired score, and David Greig's book neatly dovetails the songs into the story. But as slick as it has now become, the stage version of Roald Dahl's Matilda pierces the heart far more.


Our rating: 4.5 / 5

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"In the beginning, there was the bean!". So declares the narrator of the semi-educational cartoon which kicks-off this new musical version of Roald Dahl's story, which first saw the light of day back in 1964.

Naively, I had thought this was going to be one of those shows packed to the rafters with swarms of little people - or children if you prefer - munching their way through all the confectionary the Theatre Royal can muster. And, indeed, there was more than a fair smattering of children spread around the audience, complete with parents in tow. But, more remarkably, there were plenty of adults in evidence too and without the camouflage of kids to explain their presence. That seems to indicate the general fondness and regard for Mr Dahl's story which adults harbour, presumably from their childhood. And it is still quite a compelling story, even if its message seems to be that naughty children get rough justice, and 'good' children get their just deserts or, in this case, chocolate.

Sam Mendes's hugely inventive production is almost overwhelming in its sheer scale and complexity, but magical nonetheless. Mark Thompson's stunning design incorporates a huge number of scenes which get even more impressive when the story transfers in the second half to the interior of Wonka's mysterious factory. When we first meet the central character, Charlie Bucket, he is rummaging through an enormous pile of scrap and rubbish. The action then moves to Charlie's dilapidated house which is built almost entirely of corrugated iron. The Buckets are a poor family and Charlie and his parents share their home with Charlie's bedridden grandparents.

Enormous gates guard the entrance to Wonka's chocolate empire and the factory itself has windows that light up with silhouettes of people inside or chocolate wrappers. Inside we find a whole host of characters and machinery. Automaton as well as gigantic dancing squirrels, a gaggle of diminutive, tap-dancing Oompa-Loompas, projections of the interior of the vast factory with its endless corridors and floors, robots - the list is almost endless. There are also some nice touches of detail too such as the wisps of smoke which puff from chimneys in the distance, and there are some neat illusions - one in particular with a paper aeroplane which is simple but astonishing.

Four young actors take turns as Charlie Bucket, and all the other child roles are similarly shared. On the occasion that I saw the show Tom Klenerman was Charlie and a fine job he made of it too, producing an endearing and refreshingly appealing performance. I am always astounded by the professionalism of many young actors, and the extensive experience they have acquired. Interestingly, though, Master Klenerman is not one of your jobbing child actors who has been in everything imaginable. No, this is Tom's first stab at singing and dancing. So, all the more remarkable then that he won the chance to take on this demanding role. Among the adult actors, Douglas Hodge is the bossy and somewhat sinister Willy Wonka, who seems to relish dispatching children to stickily ignominious ends, and Nigel Planer is in fine form as Grandpa Joe.

Overall, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is terrific fun, amazing in many respects, and a production approaching monumental proportions. Making comparisons always seems unfair, but it's hard not to when another Dahl show - 'Matilda the Musical' - is still in the West End. To be fair, though, they are quite different with their own distinctive appeal. On the whole, I think I prefer Matilda, largely because of its humour, but there is also plenty of subtle humour in 'Charlie' as well, so it is a tough call between the two. (Peter Brown)

"It only rarely touches the heart or stimulates the imagination. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

"Mendes brings a cinematic sweep to the party that propels proceedings at a rapid pace, overcoming any shortcomings in spectacle and wonder..
Alun Palmer for The Daily Mirror

"The score by the Hairspray combo of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is tuneful and wholly unmemorable...Very engaging but rarely elating, this show is a skillful confection that doesn't quite produce the inspired sugar-rush of magic that's required. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent

"Delivers visual ravishment and a warm glow .
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times

"Even if it doesn't quite live up to the early hype it's a tremendously inventive show. .
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

"A triumph of exuberant stagecraft.
Simon Edge for The Express

"The success of Sam Mendes's production lies in its reminder that, for all the razzle-dazzle of Mark Thompson's sets and costumes, Dahl's story is essentially a moral fable.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

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