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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Theatre Royal Drury Lane (Review)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

FROM Skyfall to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, from big screen action-packed drama to a staged musical extravaganza, whichever way you look at it, it’s a giant leap for director Sam Mendes. The question is: can Charlie emulate the success of Bond?

A familiar and much-loved story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has at its heart Charlie Bucket, a young and endearingly selfless boy whose family is virtually penniless. Charlie loves chocolate, especially the sort produced by Willy Wonka so when the enigmatic chocolatier decides to open the gates of his chocolate factory to five lucky children, Charlie dreams of finding one of the golden tickets hidden inside a chocolate bar.

As in all good stories, Charlie’s dream comes true but to win the ultimate prize – a lifetime’s worth of sweets – he is up against gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoilt brat Veruca Salt (not to be confused with – yes, you’ve got it), record-breaking gum chewer Violet Beauregarde and television obsessed Mike Teavee. What wonderful names!

The first half of Mendes’ production is taken up almost entirely with the introduction of the characters – Charlie, who lives in a shack beside a rubbish dump with his parents and both sets of bedridden grandparents and, by the clever use of a giant TV which opens up to reveal a mini stage, Augustus and Co with their equally obnoxious parents.

Surprisingly, it’s almost an hour before we actually meet Willy Wonka, played to perfection by the very talented Douglas Hodge, and initially I thought it something of an anti-climax. Instead of a great fanfare, he appeared quietly, a colourless silhouette, a seemingly old man. But here perhaps was a clue to his destiny – a transitory glimpse into the future forestalled by a sudden burst of light that revealed him in all his glory – a colourful caricature of a circus ringmaster.

The second act consists of a series of set pieces that surprise and delight all at the same time but it’s in these that Augustus and Co meet their fate. It’s here too that Dahl reveals his dark side although to say more would spoil the gnawing sense of anticipation when the unthinkable verges on reality. And though grossly exaggerated, it’s nonetheless a moralistic tale.

Without exception, the cast are superb. The role of Charlie is alternated by four young actors so who you get depends very much on when you go. On Friday, June 28, 2013, the honour fell to Louis Suc, who imbued Charlie with warmth and generosity without making him saccharine sweet. Similarly, the roles of Augustus and Co are played by a rotating cast.

Special mention must also go to Nigel Planer as Grandpa Joe, the sort of grandfather every kid would love, who would sacrifice his funeral money so that Charlie could have a birthday present; Billy Boyle as Grandpa George; Roni Page as Grandma Josephine and Myra Sands as Grandma Georgina. Together they bring a welcome comic element to the proceedings.

As for the Oompa-Loompas, what can I say? They are quite simply a theatrical coup or, if you like, an ingenious illusion that makes midgets out of full-sized adults. And as I’ve already indicated, Mark Thompson’s set design is truly amazing. At yesterday evening’s performance, there was just one relatively small technical glitch and I mention it only because it was dealt with quickly by those unsung backstage heroes who keep the wheels of a production moving, and with humour by Hodge’s Willy Wonka whose misfortune it was to be caught up in it.

Some toe-tapping musical numbers add to the magic but I particularly liked the ballad If Your Mother Were Here sung by Alex Clatworthy (Mrs Bucket) and Jack Shalloo (Mr Bucket). Then of course there’s Pure Imagination, which comes from the 1971 Gene Wilder film – its inclusion is inspired.

So will Charlie emulate the success of Bond? I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t.

You might be interested to know that I took my 9-year-old grandson with me and he loved it too.

Read more about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently booking at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until May 31, 2014. Buy tickets