BWW Reviews: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, June 21 2013
When it comes to sky-high expectations, this production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has it harder than most, the challenge being how to satisfy an audience likely to have read and loved Roald Dahl's book and seen the story already realised - twice.
Plus, there has been an undeniable upping of the stage effects ante in recent years with Paul Kieve giving both Matilda and Ghost the kind of gasp-worthy moments that audiences relish, so of all shows, Charlie is expected to be bursting with visual invention. And since the songs from the 1971 film are almost entirely absent, the score needs to be exceptional.
So no pressure then.
Happily, the production - directed by Sam Mendes - is up to the challenge, and is almost an unequivocal success. Visually, it's a delight: Mark Thompson's design is imaginative, inventive and just plain fun, with the dank surroundings of Act I contrasting very effectively with the burst of colour that occurs when the factory opens its doors. This neat symmetrical structure allows for a prolonged, exciting build-up throughout the first half, the gloom of Act I regularly interrupted by the mostly terrific 'televised' reveals of our Golden Ticket winners. (Sidebar: Where is the marketing tie-in with a confectionery company giving away free tickets? Seriously.)
Jamie Harrison's illusions are a hoot too. The Oompa Loompas are presented in a cute, silly fashion that may not push the boundaries of originality (you'll have seen the techniques before), but it's nigh-on impossible not to be won over by the adorable little loons. The late arrival of the glass elevator provides a lovely moment of wonder, the likes of which are only possible in live theatre, although even this effect might be usurped by the unlikely thrill of a simple paper aeroplane. And as for Wonka's split-second costume change upon arrival, it's completely and wonderfully baffling, even from the third row.
The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is delightful in its own way, and there is some fine work here; from the gentle opening number through the frantic pastiches introducing each child, to Wonka's own songs ('Simply Second Nature' is an understated highlight of the evening) and the Oompa Loompa tunes, the music changes flavours like one of Wonka's three-course bubble gums. It's not perfect: a couple of the songs don't come over especially well - I would happily jettison both numbers involving Mike Teavee - and I couldn't help but long for a show-stopping belter along the lines of anything from the duo's irresistible (albeit fictional) 'Bombshell'. The score works very well though, and while it's true that audiences are likely to leave humming the only song that remains from the original film, it's an unfair comparison given that song's four-decade head start.
Douglas Hodge, all whimsical malevolence, has a great stab at making the character of Wonka his own and does his best with some decidedly lame gags but falls short of being able to vocally nail the part, a problem most evident during the Act I closer. That said, there are flashes of brilliance in his performance, which bodes well for the run as it continues. Whether that run challenges the durability of an everlasting gobstopper remains to be seen, but this is an ambitious and beautifully-designed production that promises much and, even if one were to judge these things on gleeful gasps alone, ultimately delivers.