With so much riding on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it’s a wonder it doesn’t buckle under the weight of expectation and disappear through the Drury Lane stage. No wonder the little Oompa-Loompas have such tiny bent legs. Perhaps it’s them carrying the show?
With Roald Dahl‘s Matilda doing well on both sides of the Atlantic, another children’s classic from the same man takes to the stage in musical form. And this is a story that most people know from the famous film adaptations, plus music and lyrics from Hairspray collaborators Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman and all under the directorship of Sam Mendes who must be glowing still from the success of making the Bond franchise watchable again.
We must cut to the chase. This was a preview but only a couple of nights away from the press being allowed in over five rather bizarrely non-consecutive performances. We had heard reports from early previews that there were problems with Act 1 but now it seems there is now only one problem with Act 1 – Act 1.
The mysterious Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) is a sweetie mogul with Greta Garbo tendencies who resides in
the Menier a chocolate factory and secretes five golden tickets in his Wonka bars leading to a global search, the prize being a visit to his industrial premises. Would there really be a world-wide scramble for such a prize? Are we being humbugs?
Strangely Phil once won a holiday to Japan which included a visit to the Asahi beer factory. He took the trip naturally but eschewed the promotional element of the prize fearing the owners might punish his evil ways by drowning him in a lake of beer.
Anyhoo, the little Poppets who win are ghastly and what happens to them on their visit is no Picnic. It’s either a morality tale or a case for a branch of Yewtree. Apart from Charlie, that is. He is a sweet, generous boy who lives in a desperately poor and ramshackle home with his parents and four grandparents (Nigel Planer, Billy Boyle, Roni Page and Myra Sands) who spend all their time in bed. The same bed.
And that’s the problem of Act 1. It is grey, static and feels like an endurance test to delay the gratification of meeting Wonka and his factory. We’d like to say we get to them After Eight, but it’s more like 9 pm and by then we were starting to Flake. Worse still, the show also kicks off with an overly long and entirely redundant animation of Quentin Blake’s drawings explaining the chocolate production process.
Act 1 is mostly bed-ridden. Literally. As Phil observed, if Beckett has written a musical it would probably be much like this. Thank the stars for the interspersed televised accounts of the other ticket-winning children and their Bratwurst, ballet, bubblegum and Bazookas. But these only work intermittently and the only one which was enjoyable was the episode introducing greedy Augustus Gloop and his dirndled mutti – you just can’t go wrong with German stereotyping, can you?
Perhaps it is unfair to say we were disappointed by the music or the lyrics given that we often couldn’t make out the latter (the kids involved certainly need more clarity). We came out humming the only song that remains from the Oscar-nominated film’s score, “Pure Imagination”. If they could use that, why not “The Candy Man” or the Oompa-Loompa song? And why aren’t Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley credited for it? There’s no asterisk in the programme’s list of musical numbers crediting them. Anyway, Hairspray it ain’t.
Act 1 finally introduces us to Wonka and a chirpy number “It Must Be Believed To Be Seen” then teasingly breaks before entering the factory. But in Act 2 when we finally get inside it’s a bit of a let-down initially: the chocolate waterfall is Fudg(ed) by looking too plasticky. Happily the later scenes are visually and technically impressive (sets and Spangly costumes Mark Thompson) and they Twirl and fizz like a sherbert dab. It would be unfair to reveal how the Oompa-Loompas are realised but the imaginative variations on the theme give the show a considerable Boost and – not before time – some choreography.
We didn’t Snicker once at David Greig‘s book. Indeed the jokes are so lame one wondered if Jennifer Saunders had lent a hand. But we should report the American woman next to the Whingers shrieked with laughter throughout and then repeated each ‘gag’ to her husband (and not exactly in a Wispa). A second hearing didn’t add any additional sparkle to them.
There’s a slightly juddery Chitty Chitty Bang Bang effect for “Pure Imagination” and we were suitably astonished at a brilliant illusion (puppets and illusion designer Jamie Harrison) at the end which left Andrew wishing he’d been paying more attention. But there’s a magic missing from the whole show; the money’s up there on stage but more time should have been spent on both the book and the unmemorable songs.
And strangely Hodge doesn’t seem to have found much in Wonka to work with – he seems to have focused on Wonka as a man ready to retire and looking for someone to hand his business onto which may be psychologically correct but he seems a bit bereft of the joie de vivre that children might be entitled to expect of a chocolate factory owner in a musical.
But at least the evening offered the Whingers Time Out to shuffle around the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Revel in the recent refurbishments, which was indeed a Treet.
Happily the latest theatrical trend is bucked; no creme eggs were smashed in this production. But here’s the Crunch(ie), can it be a long-runner? It may disappear like the Cadbury’s Aztec Bar; but surprisingly even that was around longer than you probably remember.
And to make up for the omission here’s Anthony Newley singing (albeit badly) “The Candy Man” with our dear, dear friend Bob Downe in a 1996 TV special.