directed by Sam Mendes
booking until 31 October 2015
Those cheeky monkeys over at Forbidden Broadway are currently teasing the team behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory every night with their mocking refrain of “Come with me / And you’ll see / A show with no imagination…”. I’m not sure the production deserves quite such a damning judgement, but it’s not hard to see where the sentiment comes from; this is a show that disappoints from the outset and only goes halfway to redeeming itself by the curtain call.
Sam Mendes’s flashy adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic pulls the stops out in terms of production values, there’s no doubt. The Bucket household is gorgeously realised, the Wonka factory gates tower over the cast at an impressive height and each golden ticket-winner appears within a technicoloured, oversized TV set to tell their story. And that’s just Act I – when we finally, finally reach the factory itself (more of that later…) there’s magic to be found in the funky TV Room, oversized chocolate pipe networks and, most of all, the fantastical Invention Room.
Yet while so many brownie points are gained through Mark Thompson’s impressive sets, so, so much is lost elsewhere. Take Marc Shaiman’s score: many musical numbers are over-cooked and repetitive, and in the first half there are simply too many that wallow in the syrupy story rather than progressing it further. The snappy numbers apportioned to each golden ticket-winner are gloriously kitsch, but a large portion of the lyrics are lost in sloppy diction and an unforgiveably bad sound balance, with Violet Beauregarde’s ‘The Double Bubble Duchess’ the worst offender. There are three stand-out catchy songs, namely Don’t Ya Pinch Me Charlie, Juicy and Vidiots, but the remainder of the score becomes a rather gloopy blend of forgettable, sentimental numbers. Even the set doesn’t always live up to the high standards, as the video projections of lifts and corridors simply look rather naff and unimaginative when compared to the wonderful creations elsewhere.
…the remainder of the score becomes a rather gloopy blend of forgettable, sentimental numbers.
The pace of the production is also problematic, with Act I dragging out the bare bones of a plot beyond their potential and the second having to pack in too much. There are some genuinely great moments that go some way to repairing this, with the oompa-loompas’ numbers bringing fun and a hint of the somehow creepy silliness that Dahl revels in – although the slightly bizarre Nutcracker-esque squirrels could easily be dropped – but once again the lyrics, so vital to capturing Dahl’s twisty, dark humour, are invariably lost.
Having said of all this, there are some strong performances. While his vocals are not the finest on the West End stage, Alex Jennings makes for a convincing Wonka; after the early stages when he seems almost too normal for the part, his zany side wins out and he becomes the funny yet unpredictable chocolatier we all want to see. As our young hero Charlie Bucket, Rhys Lambert has bags of confidence and charm and, although his strong Scottish accent is a little distracting, he puts in a fine vocal performance. Sadly the other children’s roles do not impress as much, though that is more down to the score and book than individual talent, but Hannah Howland as the revoltingly spoilt Veruca Salt stands out for her comic acting. Elsewhere the grandparents, in particular Barry James’s Grandpa Joe, add some much-needed spark to proceedings.
Much press coverage of Charlie has focused on the technical difficulties caused by the Great Glass Elevator, which promises to soar above the stage in a “wow”-inducing finale. So, was it worth the wait of those delayed previews? Let’s just say it creates more of a small pop than a bang. As lovely as it is to see the light-framed elevator float freely above the ground, its wobbling is rather alarming and the backdrop of stars is actually pretty uninspiring, despite being accompanied by the best-known number of ‘Pure Imagination’.
It’s perhaps unfair, but it’s difficult not to compare this production with Matilda the Musical, being as it is a West End musical adaptation of a Roald Dahl book. For me, Matilda leaves Charlie miles behind in terms of engagement, creativity and originality. While there are no doubt young children in the audience captivated by the sensory feast, it does not extend its appeal to older theatregoers and, in the end, falls pretty flat.
With thanks to Official Theatre and the #LDNTheatreBloggers scheme for the ticket.