Steve Glass reviews Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the West End…
Having been nestled quietly at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden for a year, Sam Mendes’ musical production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory celebrated its first birthday last Wednesday evening.
In a strange way Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a difficult challenge to overcome. Not only is it so well known, probably moreso than any other of Roald Dahl’s stories, due to its two film adaptations, but it’s a story so clearly signposted and without any great conflict. On one side we have impoverished but noble-hearted Charlie Bucket, on the other a series of desperately annoying – but enormously entertaining – children and their parents, coming together to tour the chaotic personality testing-ground/minefield of Wonka’s factory, with the seemingly chaotic, but increasingly scrupulous Wonka at the helm.
Any adaptation therefore relies in large part on its style and nuance to make an impact, and in this regard this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great success. As Charlie Jake Poolman was entirely believable; wide-eyed, good-natured, just the right side of naive. The first half is all Charlie’s and Poolman owned the stage from his first solo (the endearing ‘Almost Nearly Perfect’ about his making treasure of the rest of the world’s trash). His performance is anchored by two quiet but touching performances from Richard Dempsey and Kirsty Malpass as Mr and Mrs Bucket. Their first-act duet (‘If Your Mother Were Here’), while clearly the point at which the younger audience members are likely to tune out for a minute, will be one of the high-points for the adults watching; a delicate lullaby of two parents, just as innocent and unadulterated as their child, singing for each other and wishing for him.
Once the golden ticket contest begins the show really hits its stride. In a wonderful twenty-minute sequence, huge TV screen descending from above the stage introduces us to each of the lucky winners, one by one. First and for perhaps foremost is Augustus Gloop, whose introduction is presented as an absurd fairground music-box, all heads bobbing and yodelling. He’s followed by Veruca Salt, who proves to be beyond obnoxious, Violet Beauregarde, whose chewing-gum dance routine is tiring to look at, and the terrifying Mike Teavee and his unfortunate, alcoholic 50s housewife of a mother – the latter of which, as played by Josefina Gabrielle, proves to be one of the show’s great pleasures.
The choreography by Peter Darling is terrific, and comes into its own upon the arrival of the Oompa-Loompas, who each appear to be performed by two people – I won’t give away why, suffice it to say it works a charm. The stage design too is colourful and the best kind of distracting, and only gets more interesting as the characters move further and further through Wonka’s factory.
It’s the nature of Dahl’s story that the nature of the story changes once we reach the chocolate factory, and it’s true that Charlie takes something of a backseat to the room-to-room events which lead to the other children’s ejections from the Wonka tour. Mostly this problem is solved through the continuing invention on show, especially in the form of the Oompa Loompas, absurd-looking creatures built through what looks like the use of a singer and ‘torso’ dancer as well as a leg-puppeteer. It’s striking and hilarious the first time you see them leaping around as they wave goodbye to Augustus Gloop, but as the tour moves along their costumes and routines become more and more elaborate and you find yourself continually wide-eyed and giggling with childlike glee.
The kids each got their chance to shine in their respective scenes here, and they were all enormously impressive, be it in dancing (Violet Beauregarde), vocal work (Amy Carter as Veruca Salt), or to be honest, general, undying charisma (Jay Heyman as Mike Teavee). And when the end comes around I found myself in the strange position of both thinking I knew the outcome inside and out, and with butterflies in my stomach for the moment in which Charlie Bucket would be told he hasn’t been awarded the factory. This I have to say led to the show’s weakest moment, before one of its quietest and in fact strongest. The technicality with which Charlie is shown the door is a little unbelievable, but once Grandpa Joe takes Wonka aside to give him a piece of his mind about, Charlie is left alone….and he starts to break the rules, to draw, to invent. Here is the great triumph of Mendes’ production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s structured around the notion of ‘pure imagination’, to borrow the title of the 1971 film’s and this show’s central number. Bolstered by a touching framing device of a friendly homeless man, this show begins and ends with a child looking to create something, be it out of the best tools possible or just scavenged pieces from a dump, bric-a-brac which is “almost nearly perfect…near enough to new”. This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a story about merit over chance, about rewards for good deeds done unknowingly. And it fully earns the tears it jerks from the first lines of ‘Pure Imagination’ to the moment the curtain falls.