Roald Dahl’s enduring tale of Charlie Bucket is nearly fifty years old. First published in 1964, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has captivated generations, with two screen versions cementing it in the public’s affections. Adapted by David Greig, with a fresh score from Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Smash) and direction from Skyfall director Sam Mendes, the story has now been re-imagined for the stage.
The show begins with a charming introduction drawn from Dahl’s text with visuals from Quentin Blake, Dahl’s long time collaborator.
In the Bucket family’s ramshackle home we meet the family; Charlie’s four grandparents share the same bed and set the scene for Wonka and the factory with a story-telling number. News of the Golden Ticket competition raises Charlie’s hopes, but as each television broadcast announces the identity of the a new winner, each reveal dashes Charlie’s hopes a little more.
In a brilliant reveal, each of the winning children appear on an upper stage area for an introductory duet with their parents. The first two are much as expected, an amusing Austrian folk number illustrates Augustus Gloop’s greed with ‘More of Him to Love’ while the demanding wannabe prima ballerina Veruca Salt lays down her cards with ‘When Veruca Says’.
Things take a dramatically modern turn for the gum chewing Violet Beauregard. Re-imagined as a Hollywood rap starlet, the self-styled ‘Double Bubble Duchess’ appears with her own entourage. Finally, a frenetic Ritalin-controlled gamer and net-obsessed menace explodes in a cacophony of sound for ‘It’s Teavee Time’. It is even later suggested that Mike hacked Wonka’s computer system to locate his golden ticket.
Grandpa Joe, played by Nigel Planer (The Young Ones, Doctor Who Live), has the best of the material in the first half, although the duet between Charlie’s parents is very touching too. While Willy Wonka’s reveal is held back, allowing the first half of the show to be reasonably gentle, the second half explodes in a dazzling riot of colour and sound.
From the lunacy of the Oompa Loompas to giant squirrels and transmission by Wonka-Vision, the fun takes hold and doesn’t let go. With some superb visual gags and excellent use of projection, as well as an endless parade of giant sets that leave you scratching your head, Wonka whittles the five winners down to one as each fall to their own vice. The show’s finale, with a flight in the great glass elevator is thrilling and accompanied by the classic number ‘Pure Imagination’, the only song imported from the 1971 film.
With previous incarnations casting a long shadow, Douglas Hodge rises to the challenge and provides a multi-layered Wonka; the children will marvel at his physicality and hi-jinks, while the adults can enjoy some impressive verbal dexterity and darker comic asides. There is an excellent supporting cast too, with the cheeky comic turn of Grandma Josephine (Roni Page) a particular joy. The children’s energy levels are breathtaking and on our visit, Jack Costello as Charlie clearly showed an abundance of talent.
While the story suits any occasion, somehow the spectacle here seems well suited to the season; from the homespun sentiment of the Buckets to the pantomime antics of the Oompa-Loompas, we cannot think of a more enjoyable festive treat this Christmas. Don’t miss out on your (golden) ticket!
Performed on Thursday 28 November 2013 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London.
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