I’m very picky on my musicals. I haven’t seen ‘Phantom’ or ‘Les Mis’ and as it’s unlikely that they’ll be closing any time soon, I don’t have the same sense of urgency to see them as I do with plays that get a 10-week run. So it’s a rare thing indeed for me to book to see a brand new musical on its first preview night. But I grew up reading books by Roald Dahl, so as soon as I got word of stage version of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, my inner child frogmarched me to the internet demanding that I booked tickets at once.
It is impossible to separate Roald Dahl stories from the accompanying illustrations by Quentin Blake. So it brought a huge smile to my face to see the show open with a cartoon sequence all about chocolate, drawn by Blake himself. Even though Dahl mostly wrote books for children, we can sometimes forget how dark these stories really are – but playwright David Grieg and director Sam Mendes have brought out the best of the morbidity and black humour.
We first meet cheerful urchin Charlie Bucket sifting through the rubbish dump looking for useful things to take home to his poor-but-happy family. The ramshackle house is gloomy, but filled with the love and tentative optimism of Charlie’s parents and 4 bedridden elderly grandparents, the latter providing much of the black comedy e.g. in the song ‘A Letter From Charlie Bucket’ they softly sing: “Off to bed, counting sheep….hope we don’t die in our sleep”. There was a small technical glitch (getting the beds lined up again on the trapdoor) but I think this is forgivable on the first preview and will hopefully be ironed out in the coming weeks before the show officially opens.
There is a dose of bitter realism in the story; Charlie gets a Wonka bar for his birthday – but there is no golden ticket. This provides great contrast to the introductions of the 4 children who win the first 4 golden tickets – the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, precocious Veruca Salt, gum-chewing diva Violet Beauregarde and joystick-happy Mike Teavee – all great caricatures and all instantly dislikeable. But Charlie gets his golden ticket, so he and Grandpa Joe (Nigel Planer) set off to Willy Wonka’s Factory.
Under the colourful, gregarious exterior of Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) there is something that hovers on the border between mischievous and sinister, almost dangerous. Wonka, the 5 children and their adult chaperones weave through the factory, with Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike meeting their sticky ends. This is greatly theatrical and the way they create the Oompa Loompas is truly inspired – it’s a technique I’ve seen used before, but it requires 3 C’s: Coordination, Cooperation and Concentration. I am in awe of anyone who can do it well!
I was quite surprised at how much of Act 1 is spent in the Bucket household rather than at the Factory. The show is none the worse for it, but I think most people in the audience were expecting to skim through that aspect of the story and get straight to the chocolate. But you have to finish your dinner before you can have dessert and it’s worth the wait. The vast majority of this musical is a brand new score – it’s very difficult to tell whether any of them will become classics in their own right when you’ve only heard them once, but stand-out numbers include ‘Don’t Ya Pinch Me, Charlie’ and ‘It Must Be Believed to be Seen’. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I think you can make an educated guess at which classic song has been included.
The cast are excellent, but the biggest credit must go to the young actor playing Charlie Bucket – the role demands a lot of stage time and lines, plus getting the audience on your side without them feeling sorry for you. I only wish my programme had included a slip of paper to say which of the 4 boys was playing him!
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently open for preview, but officially opens on Tuesday 25th June 2013
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Catherine Street, LONDON, WC2B 5JF