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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane


  Douglas Hodge and company/ Ph: Helen Maybanks

It promised to be a mouthwatering treat. But, although this much-anticipated musical blockbuster based on the well-loved 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl comes wrapped in hype and spectacle, there’s disappointingly little beneath the expensive packaging. That’s even more of a letdown in view of the creative team involved: Sam Mendes, Donmar Warehouse founder and Oscar-winning filmmaker, fresh from the international success of the Bond movie Skyfall, directs; the numbers are by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, the duo who gave us the sparkling hit show Hairspray; and the highly respected playwright David Greig supplies the book. Throw in designs by Mark Thompson and choreography by Peter Darling, whose inspired and witty work rarely fails to dazzle, and the results should be scrumptious. And yet what we’re presented with is a gooey mess: by turns horribly sentimental, blusteringly brash and downright dull. There are some sweet spots, but they struggle to compensate for so much that is bland.
The problems begin early, and persist almost all the way to the interval. Bafflingly, the show opens with a tedious cartoon featuring images from venerable Dahl illustrator Quentin Blake, detailing the chocolate production process from bean to bar. It’s hardly the zingiest of openings; and once it’s out of the way, we’re whisked away to ... a rubbish dump. Here, plucky little Charlie Bucket – played with verve at the performance reviewed by Jack Costello – forages for discarded “treasures,” which he takes back to the home that he shares, in Dickensian impoverishment, with his mum, dad and four bed-ridden grandparents.
And this grim domicile is where we remain for most of the remainder of act one, as Charlie dreams wistfully of winning a golden ticket, and with it the chance to visit the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory and meet its mysterious proprietor. Darling’s choreography is, necessarily, restricted, given that four key characters at this point are incapable of standing up; and Shaiman and Wittman’s songs are turgid, lachrymose and tooth-rottingly sugary. There’s an instant of lovely, genuinely touching simplicity when Charlie makes a paper aeroplane of his letter to Wonka and sends it soaring up into the gods, but otherwise the only relief from the blatant heartstring-tugging comes in the appearances, on an oversized TV, by the other Golden Ticket winners. Veruca Salt is a ballet-fixated super-brat who tyrannises her tycoon father (Clive Carter); Violent Beauregarde, the compulsive gum-chewer, is a blinged-up rapper with a sharp-suited, soulman dad (Paul J Medford); Augustus Gloop and his dirndl-clad Mutti hail from Bavaria and bop along to an oompah band; and Mike Teavee is a psychotic video gamer who drives his suburban Stepford housewife mom to pills and drink.
By the time the show gets this dislikable bunch to the factory gates, along with Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (Nigel Planer), the use of the latter’s legs miraculously restored by the exhilaration of the occasion, we’re desperate for some real action. At long last, Douglas Hodge’s Wonka appears, dapper in his velvet tails, topper and spats – and it feels as if the action might finally be getting underway. Only post-interval, though, do we make it through the door – and there’s a serious danger that by then, we may have lost our appetite.
This is unfortunate, because matters do improve in act two. There are confectionary-creating robots in the Inventing Room; a garish Chocolate Room complete with chocolate waterfall, lurid candy blooms and minty grass; and best of all, a Nut Room staffed by fluffy but rather sinister-looking squirrels. These bright-eyed, bushy-tailed workers come courtesy of Jamie Harrison, who, in supplying the show’s illusions and puppetry, is responsible for what is arguably its greatest asset. His take on the Oompa-Loompas – adult-sized dancers equipped with little puppet legs, who make their first, breathtaking entrance in a kickline poised on industrial pipe work – is wonderfully inventive.
As for Hodge’s Wonka, he’s curiously unengaging: world-weary, enigmatic and unpredictable, but neither charismatic nor mischievous enough. Still, the standard of song and dance is consistently high, and the child performers are difficult to fault. Those for whom sheer technical hocus pocus provides a thrill, too, will find plenty to please them. The climactic sequence is the flight of the Great Glass Elevator through a star-filled sky. But at the risk of sounding like the spoilt and insatiable Veruca, none of it’s quite enough. It has its melting moments; but this is a show that, in the least desirable sense, leaves you wanting much, much more.


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