So, back in June, the week it opened, I went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Sam Mendes, at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Admittedly I was intrigued to see how the production would fare, especially because of the publicity surrounding the amount spent on the set design (reportedly millions!)
Given that we had booked tickets for the later performance at 7:30pm, we had hoped that the audience would consist of fewer children – at least that was the plan! In contrast, our hearts sank at the congestion surrounding the entrance to the theatre and the foyer. Children everywhere! There was what could be described as violent bustles of children’s armies ignorantly barricading the area, making it impossible to simply navigate ourselves over to the desk (for a programme and refreshments) and then to the entrance for our seats. Even the ushers seemed perplexed by this lack of organisation and appeared slightly thrown. I don’t know which was worse, the shouting children or the children dressed as though they were going to a nightclub (not the time nor place for that story). Either way, we hoped the evening would look up.
Now I shan’t regurgitate the plot as most of you already know the story by Roald Dahl, and I’m sure you’ve read journalist reviews. Plus I don’t want to bore you!
Though, was it what I was expecting? To be honest I’m not too sure what I was expecting. When I saw Matilda I was rather intrigued and absorbed by this interpretation of the tale. But for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I suppose I didn’t anticipate it moving so slowly. I actually found myself wishing for the interval just so I could wake up a little with a sugar boost of ice cream. Quentin Letts, of The Daily Mail, described Act One “as slow as cold treacle”, and sadly I have to agree.
It was probably unwise to have hoped for some of the original classic songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley to appear, but I had an open mind for the music here by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; as I usually do when I see stage interpretations. However, whilst there were certainly a variety of music styles, the songs didn’t do much for me, and in my opinion, didn’t move the story along that successfully either. It was more stop start then let’s take you on a musical journey.
The audience were not helping either. We seemed to be surrounded by excitable children, who felt fit to laugh at every moment. Then we had people around us who decided to bring the loudest food ever, rustling to their own tune. There was almost an argument at one point. Some elderly ladies in front had had quite enough of their inconsideration. Thankfully it did not get that far. I had come to watch on stage action, not off…
As everyone who knows me knows, any references to Germany and you have my attention. So naturally my attention was gaged when I saw the Gloop’s, and I was even more amused by the little Bavarian style song composed for them. They were charming (and to be honest my favourite family).
Now for Act 2.
To get it out of the way, I found the Oompa Loompas too bizarre. There, that’s all I have to say about them.
Douglas Hodge was marvellous and I cannot fault him at all. He really brought Willy Wonka alive in a way that’s true to the original Roald Dahl Story. This interpretation is darker than the film we all remember, and this is felt throughout the musical, referring itself instead to the tone and morals of the original tale. To quote The Guardian’s Michael Billington, “Dahl’s book is a morality play in which vice is punished and virtue gets its edible reward”. And boy do these children have vices; and they’re frankly quite disturbed!
Furthermore, the show continued to tell the tale we all know well, captivating the audience more with it’s incredibly intricate and sophisticated set and costumes (by Mark Thompson) than storytelling.
The greatest reaction came from the blissful sighs sounded by the audience (seemingly perking up) as the infamous chimes echoed the theatre introducing ‘Pure Imagination’. It was the moment we had all been waiting for. For me, it was the best moment of the show. Douglas Hodge did a fantastic job. Not to mention the set captured the magical quality of the moment, like we were flying with Charlie and Willy Wonka. This was the highlight. Though I had to wait all the way until the very end to get to it.
Therefore, I could completely understand the mixed reviews from critics as I left the theatre. I still didn’t quite know what I thought of it. I have seen plenty of theatre and musical theatre shows, but still this wouldn’t be one I’d remember for the better, I don’t think. It wouldn’t be on my list of recommendations but I certainly appreciate the hard work that has gone into it. Maybe the hard work went too much in one direction? There are only so many ways the set design and costumes can carry a story.
Lastly, would I see it again? No. But I would by no means stop someone from seeing it if they wished to. That’s what’s great about entertainment. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences. This one just didn’t do it for me.
Below is the official trailer for the musical!