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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane


  Ph: Helen Maybanks

That hoary old cliché about leaving the theatre whistling the scenery applies (and then some!) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the second Roald Dahl musical London has seen in the last couple of years. Matilda was the first. The two shows have in common a Dickensian darkness (a Dahl trademark), an appealing young hero/heroine and the same choreographer (Peter Darling).

But whereas Matilda relies on its book, music and lyrics to tell the story of a precocious little girl who triumphs despite opposition from hateful parents and a teacher from hell, Charlie goes all out for spectacle and special effects as it repeats Dahl’s tale of an appealing but indigent youngster (and his largely bed-ridden family) who, together with four other children, wins a golden invitation to Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory.

The show, by the very nature of the story, is divided into two very distinct halves. Act one whimsically introduces us to Charlie and his colourless mother and father and eccentric grandparents, and follows his quest to find a Wonka chocolate bar containing just one of the five precious invitations that will give him access to the factory – an imposing edifice that no one has ever been seen entering or leaving.

Diversion from Charlie’s poverty-stricken surroundings is provided by mock television broadcasts introducing us to the four obnoxious kids lucky enough to have found the all-important gold invitations, and the act ends with Charlie himself becoming the fifth recipient of the much sought-after golden invite.

The pervasive gloom and doom of the first half evaporates dramatically as soon as host Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) appears (has there ever been a musical where the leading character materialises only in act two?) and begins the guided tour of his extraordinary establishment.

From this point onwards the large budget lavished on the show kicks in – and so do some good visual ideas, not least of which is designer Mark Thompson’s take on Wonka’s diminutive workforce, the Oompa-Loompas, whose introductory number, infectiously staged by Peter Darling, is by far the best thing in the show. It’s a long time coming, but worth waiting for.

Visual conceits, such as inflatable costumes, Rube Goldberg-style robots and a floating glass cage, are antidotes to the rather lethargic first half and give the show a much-needed lift.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s music and lyrics swing narrowly between routine and serviceable but fail to provide a standout hit, while David Greig’s book can’t solve the problem of an undernourished first half.

At the performance I attended, Tom Klenerman played Charlie with all the likeability the role demands. The other four kids were largely incomprehensible, while veteran Nigel Planer does the best he can in the underwritten part of Charlie’s caring grandfather.

In the role created on celluloid by Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, Hodge goes about his business in a thoroughly professional manner, but he lacks the quirkiness and the charisma of his predecessors. I got the impression I was watching an understudy.

Sam Mendes – fresh from his directorial success with Skyfall – directs with military efficiency, but in the end fails to provide the show with a heart and a soul.


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