Regular readers will know that at GTW we love the musical Matilda. So attending the press night of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a slightly perturbing experience. How could it possibly measure up to the phenomenal success of Matilda? A huge gamble, surely … and as with Matilda, my generation, one that grew up submerged in and adoring Dahl’s books is now the generation most likely to be casting a critical eye over these new productions – anxious that our beloved childhood stories won’t be ruined, or Dahl’s utterly unique voice and style lost along the way. Dahl famously hated the portrayal of Wonka by Gene Wilder in the 1971 film, and at that stage audiences weren’t happy with the ‘Americanisation’ of the tale either. The 2005 film was another worrying moment, but although the story was extended to include details of Wonka’s background, it was far closer to the original. In addition, it held firmly on to a completely accurate zany wackiness, along with elements of darkness – Tim Burton could hardly have been a better choice for director. The Dahl Estate had final artistic control and Burton made efforts to visit the former Dahl home and view the original manuscripts. Johnny Depp was inspired casting, bringing to life the mad, humorous, troubled, deeply dark Wonka of the original instead of the rather unpleasant Wilder portrayal – I think Dahl would have approved.
This version starts very auspiciously, as the opening sequence appears on a giant screen complete with Quentin Blake pictures – hoorah, a very promising sign – and a voiceover narrator, another familiar trope from Dahl adaptions (and initially prompted by Dahl’s narrative style in the books). From there, the show takes flight into an utterly absorbing, exciting spectacle.
It isn’t really surprising that it has taken this long for Charlie to come to the stage; those familiar with the story will wonder how on earth all those scenes are staged and what compromises are made. The great news is, not many compromises are made at all. There is quite a lot of use of screens, with sequences and scenes projected onto them, but only as an addition to the marvellous sets and not instead. Fans won’t be disappointed with the scene in which each child is ‘dispatched’, nor with the Bucket shack, nor with any of the factory rooms. The scene at the end with the Great Glass Elevator is one of the best highlights of all (I won’t spoil it here by giving details, but it is likely you’ll have heard about it since an early performance coped with a slight … mishap during the scene). I’ve been unable to find out if it is deliberate or a happy accident, but the chair in which Charlie does his homework, writes a wish letter to Wonka and sleeps is just like the famous chair in which Dahl wrote all his books.
The caricatured four children who accompany Charlie to visit Wonka’s factory may be something of a gift as far as directors are concerned, hopefully difficult to do badly, but here they are delightfully pushed to their extremes. The wonderful sequence in which each new golden ticket find is announced on television (a giant box filling most of the space above the stage in which each scene is acted out) is brilliant and drew great cheers from the audience; the Augustus Gloop scene stands out as especially hilarious.
Wonka is a complex character for a children’s book, combining wackiness, darkness, humour, showmanship, integrity and cruelty all at once. This must be even harder to convey onstage, where repelling the audience is both easier to achieve and harder to rectify. Thankfully, Douglas Hodge is exceptional in the role. He achieves just the right combination of characteristics and has that essential twinkle and air of mystery, ensuring that you’re never quite sure what he is thinking. Wonka is a bit like a lit firework; attractive, but you’re not quite sure when it’s going to go off and what will happen afterwards. Hodge conveys this brilliantly, infusing his part with wit, connecting with the audience (and Charlie) and singing very well too.
As for Charlie, aside from the standard ‘child actor’ problems, this character has to be upstanding but not smarmy, a hero who isn’t a goody-two-shoes, not bland, empathy-inducing but not pathetic. On this press night, Jack Costello filled the role admirably, and furthermore, appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself throughout.
Choosing how to portray the oompa-loompas is another area fraught with problems. Do you go down the route of the 1971 film and simply seek out short actors? The method used in the 2005 film, where Deep Roy played all the oompa-loompas, worked very well but is obviously impossible on the stage. I personally wasn’t sure about the method used here at first (I won’t give it away), but it becomes more and more ingenious throughout, and by the end is impossible not to love and laugh at.
The songs are enjoyable although not memorable, with lyrics failing when set against those in Matilda for example (not surprisingly, up against the genius of Tim Minchin). However, the cast received an almost universal standing ovation at the end and there was a definite buzz as the audience filed out into the night. The musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not have quite the punch and cleverness of Matilda, but that is made up for in the excellent performances and overall glittering spectacle, which has already seen the run extended for a year.