The Theatreguide.London Review
The Chocolate Factory
Drury Lane Theatre Summer 2013 - January 2017
This new musical version of Roald Dahl's story is OK, but in a context in which OK is not really enough.
There isn't much that is actually bad about the show, but not enough that is especially good, and I doubt that family audiences who have seen Matilda, The Lion King, Billy Elliot or the recent Shrek will rank this one highly in that company.
Dahl's tale is of a nice little boy who, along with some bratty other kids, wins a contest to tour a mysterious candymaker's magical factory. More-or-less by default, the other children demonstrating their unworthiness and meeting gruesome fates, he proves himself deserving of a very special prize.
Even if you haven't read the book or seen either of the two film versions, you can see that the fun of the story all lies in the candy factory, both in its colourful marvels and in the comical justice meted out to the nasty kids.
But David Greig's adaptation devotes most of the first act to the Dickensian poverty of young Charlie's family, which means, among other things, that the stage is largely dark and colourless and the musical numbers (songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, of Hairspray) more wistful than rousing.
The one upbeat number, when the family celebrates Charlie's win, both sounds and looks, in Peter Darling's choreography, like an out-take from Oliver.
Willy Wonka himself doesn't appear until the end of Act One and the Oompa-Loompas until well into Act Two, which means we have to wait a very long time for things to get bouncy and colourful.
Even then Sam Mendes' staging and Mark Thompson's design provide too little of the spectacle and magic this audience wants.
Indeed, except for some clever video projections and one number that makes inventive use of a bank of TV sets, the staging is very 1950s – a scene ends, a curtain comes down, a brief scene is played in front of it while the set is changed, and the curtain goes up to place us in another room.
The Oompa-Loompas, alternately full-size humans and half-size puppets, are fun and one roller-disco number for them (don't ask) is the perkiest in the show.
Otherwise Wittman and Shaiman's songs are no more than serviceable, the most evocative being Wonka's 'Simply Second Nature,' which I would say fills the role of 'Pure Imagination' in the first film except that 'Pure Imagination' itself is used later in this show (with no programme credit that I could find to Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley).
As Willy Wonka Douglas Hodge looks a bit like Johnny Depp and sounds a lot like Gene Wilder. He works hard at keeping the character charming but is caught by the novel's central ambiguity and never seems quite sure whether he's playing a good guy or a bad guy, so that we are never quite sure whether his charm is meant to be creepy.
Four boys alternate the role of Charlie. I saw Isaac Rouse, who is attractive and clearly talented, but never holds the stage like a Matilda or Billy Elliot.
There are three each of the other kids, the only one in my team with real spark being Polly Allen as spoiled Veruca Salt. Nigel Planer walks through the role of Charlie's grandfather without leaving much of an impression.
You'll notice that most of my comments have been about falling short rather than actual flaws – they don't do this or can't do that – and that is the impression both children and adults are likely to take from this show, that it's OK but just doesn't quite do it.
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Review - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Drury Lane 2013