From the moment the lights dim in the vast auditorium of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the curtain rises to reveal the vast stage and complex sets, you know you are in for something special. Everyone knows the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There have been two film versions and endless reprints of the Quentin Blake-illustrated books, but never a stage musical. This is probably due to the locations and environments the story prescribes, from a large flowing river of chocolate to a glass elevator that has the power to fly! Achievable on film, but a nightmare to create on stage.
From the moment the lights dim in the vast auditorium of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the curtain rises to reveal the vast stage and complex sets, you know you are in for something special.
Well, designer Mark Thompson has done the impossible and conjured up the most inventive and complex stage design the West End has ever seen. A field of edible giant confectionery sparkles and glows like a fluorescent fairground scene and an enormous chocolate fountain gargles and glistens like a mini waterfall. It is pure uncensored theatrical spectacle that made the children and adults alike ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ as though it was the 5th of November.
We are told the fairytale story of Charlie Bucket, who lives in a cramped house with his mum, dad and numerous grandparents – all living in the same bed! – dreaming of a better future, preferably one filled with sweets and chocolate. Enter the mysterious confectioner, Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) and his secretive chocolate factory that emits strange noises and wonderful smells.
Wonka decides to hold a competition to allow a few lucky children to enter the peculiar world of his factory. He hides five golden tickets inside the wrappers of his chocolate bars and the holders of these tickets will be allowed a glimpse into the astonishing world of Willy Wonka. Needless to say, Charlie finds a golden ticket and enters the bizarre factory with his Grandpa Joe (Nigel Planer), along with an array of horrible children that all seems to come to appropriately sticky endings at the hands of either Oompa-Loompas or deliciously destructive machinery.
Although written for a young audience, the tale is as dark as they come, something the children in the theatre seem to appreciate with maniacal laughter at the naughty children’s gruesome demises. It is this darkly fun twist that makes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so utterly entertaining, and the musical’s adapter David Greig has honed in on this to glorious effect. He presents each of the child horrors in the most political incorrect way possible, from an obese Bavarian that yodels and burp to a precocious young girl complete with Conservative-voting father who is more plummy than anything in the Home Counties.
Designer Mark Thompson has done the impossible and conjured up the most inventive and complex stage design the West End has ever seen.
The production is cast almost to perfection, with each of the children and their parents looking suitably grotesque. Nigel Planer gives Grandpa Joe a kind-hearted air, as well as playing the stereotypical geriatric that desperately wants to go on one last adventure before his time is up. However, they all pale in comparison to Douglas Hodge’s mercurial performance as Willy Wonka. Hodge seems to be channeling a mixture of David Bowie and Michael Jackson as he skips across the stage with the vitality of someone half his age. His Willy Wonka is more villain than hero, as he leers over his possible victims in a devilish looking moustache and top hat.
The musical’s composer, Mark Shaiman, has recreated the buoyant melodies that made Hairspray so successful, but the lyrics don’t quite match up, as they are often lost on the audience due to the speed at which they must be delivered. It almost feels as if we are one step behind, constantly playing catch-up with the last cleverly constructed line. But, overall, the music is hugely enjoyable and helps to give the show its joie de vivre and keeps you humming the tunes long after departing the theatre.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a must for any family trip to London, but if it came down to a choice, Matilda the Musical would always be at the top of the list, with this show following in a very close second.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is booking until 31 May 2014. Like the show, tickets are golden, so book now to avoid disappointment!