Last night I was part of the first ever public audience for the new musical ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘. Based on the Roald Dahl classic which has spawned two films (depending what camp either one’s great the other’s not or both are great or whatever…) the musical joins Dahl’s other classic ‘Matilda‘ which has taken the theatre world by storm. Whether or not the new Sam Mendes’ directed musical will be as bigger hit I’m really not too sure as I left the theatre last night deflated (unlike Violet) and underwhelmed by the whole thing.
A great short film opens the show, with illustrations of a Quentin Blake style we find out how chocolate is made. The film packed with humour and some subtle nods to Dahl’s style would, you’d hope, set the pace for the show but sadly once the screen goes up we’re met with a dark, dreary set for much of the first half of the show. If there’s anything I’ve learnt through theatre design is that if you’re poor than you live in grey or black and white with very little colour. Because of this, the only colour in the first half of what should be a huge spectacular musical comes when each of the tickets are found. That’s not to say the set isn’t great, the Buckets’ house is full of exciting little things – it’s just a shame it’s too dark to see them! And the bed – well it’s pretty cool – even if watching stage managers rushing on to push it all back together does distract you from what should be one of more heart wrenching numbers.
The songs aren’t memorable, looking over the list of musical numbers there’s only two of of the 11 in the first half that I remember and that’s down to the staging more than the song itself. Whenever the golden ticket winners are announced colour invades a small part of the stage and these numbers, especially Augustus Gloop’s number are the highlights of the first half.
The second half of the show is set in the factory itself. Sadly the factory is lifeless and looks too much like a theatre set. The chocolate room (the one in the movies which looks like a big field and gushing river) is small, floor based, nothing on the sides and a bit of wavy plastic for a waterfall. The river? A tiny circle of a pond with plastic bubbles. I was expecting so much more – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane I’m sure is capable of hosting much more spectacular sets. All the other rooms visited in the factory all seem to be lacking the extravagance expected – however the TV room was probably the best and the projections are sublime by the way. But don’t get me started on the ‘Great Glass Elevator’….
And then there’s the Oompa-Loompas… undecided is my key word here. I can’t slate them but I can’t praise the direction they’ve been taken in. It’s nothing against the performers or performances but more design. Costumes that look like they’ve come from a panto (for example a costume for one actor consists of an Oompa-Loompa on top of another) and no real chain of thought for any uniformity for them they lack the strangeness and mysteriousness you get from the book..
My biggest worry however, and this really is a worry, is that we are led to believe the Willy Wonka is a murderer. Really. In the book and films the missing children go home – in their new states, but they go home. In the musical we know the Mike goes home, but the rest – well we’re led to believe that Violet explodes, that Augustus has gone into the sweets and the Veruca and her dad are incinerated. No mention of them surviving these perils and I find that quite concerning. I’m sure Dahl, no matter how deliciously dark his writing is at times, would want Wonka to come across as a child murderer.
The performances are all fantastic – the kids are confident and full of character and the Nigel Planer’s Grandpa Joe full of comedy. Douglas Hodge’s Wonka however might need a few adjustments but on the whole is good. It is a good show, and I’m sure the version I saw last night will go through changes as the previews continue. It will probably be a hit but whether or not it will be a classic I’m not so sure. I wish I could say the show is better than good, but on this occasion I find it difficult to. With changes that a show goes through in previews I hope it improves and flourishes – it doesn’t need to to suceed but will do to become a classic.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London.
Previews till 24th June. Opening 25th June. Booking until 30th November 2013