Charlie and the (Bittersweet) Chocolate Factory

Tuesday 10th June 2014

I had what some might call an unhealthy obsession with movie musicals as a child.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a particular favourite video tape, and it got worn out at least once. I'm sure you'll understand my nervous apprehension upon approaching the latest re-make, Sam Mendes' Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, currently showing at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The stakes were pretty high: I wept with disappointment on seeing Tim Burton's 2005 film. I hoped the dream creative team could cook up something I could stomach. 

This production is a visual spectacle. It's extravagant. It's the bar of chocolate in the window that you salivate over. But when you peel away the wrapper, you end up with something underwhelming, like the cheap chocolate in an Advent calendar or found on a budget hotel pillow. 

Sadly the orchestrations and overall balance went to war, preventing any kind of full immersion into the story. Confident performances from the golden ticket winning children were diluted by an overzealous score, and company numbers often came across as the generic sound of people singing unknown words. I consigned myself to watching, and leaving the listening to the quieter numbers. Thanks to Spotify, I can now delight in the witty lyrics in their full glory, but it may be a case of 'too little too late'.

Luckily Peter Darling's choreography delivered witty repartee throughout, adding to the colleague of visual treats of Mark Thompson's mammoth set and costumes. Big budget, super-sized and loud mouthed, the set was almost cinematic, which as a double-edged sword, might have added to the overly-sanguine taste in my mouth. I felt a little like I'd been subjected to a birthday party of forced fun, having been given a paper hat, and stuffed full of sugar by an over-enthusiastic host. Call me old fashioned, but I've always thought you don't need to 'show' everything on stage - the imagination is a wonderful muscle that needs exercising, and I worry that having a picture painted in full, HD colour removes our imagination's chance to participate. I'm sure that most of the laughs were generated by simple sound effects, not expensive machinery: 'less is more'. 

I enjoyed David Greig's book, with the grandparents offering shots of comedy in what could otherwise be a dreary first half. A disappointment was Marc Shaiman's score, which while pleasant enough, is overshadowed by the inclusion of the great movie musical classic 'Pure Imagination' (the only number from the original film). I couldn't hum a single other tune as I walked out of Drury Lane, which is surprising considering the ear worms in Shaiman and Wittman's Hairspray and their more recent numbers in Smash

The entire company gave gutsy performances that deserve praise. If I'd seen this show as a child, I'm sure I would have come away with a new ambition to play Veruca Salt. As an adult, I came away with the desire to play an Oompa-Loompa, who were so cleverly designed and executed with great joy by the performers. Alex Jennings made a slightly unhinged Wonka, who became more endearing as the story unravelled. I just wish I'd heard more of the lyrics the cast were working so hard to sell, at the time. 

At the heart of all this is the same timeless story we all fell in love with. It's impossible not to get behind Charlie, and some clever framing sees him being a deserving hero of his lot, rather than merely a lucky recipient of good fortune. I hope generations to come are still enjoying Roald Dahl's unique take on morality tales. 

Despite a few disappointments, there are many reasons to see the show if you get the chance, not least to see what's possible if you throw everything into a production melting pot. I laughed out loud, smiled, and was entertained.  I just wonder if this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be the one I would choose to share with my own children. 


Huge thanks to @theatreofficial for the ticket!