Adapting anything Roald Dahl is a brave move and often comes with varying results. Currently the best-loved author is experiencing something of a West End revival thanks to the huge success of RSC’s Matilda and now the success of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical directed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes. The classic story was first turned into a feature film in 1971 with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Despite the film being classed as a box office failure, it went on to be considered a classic family movie. In 2005 Tim Burton released his own vision of the story with Johnny Depp in the role of Wonka. Even though the film made a huge profit it was poorly received by critics and fans.
You’ll no doubt know the story well but the show centres around Charlie Bucket (Isaac Rouse), a young boy with a big imagination who lives in poverty with his parents and both sets of grandparents. Every year for his birthday Charlie received a Wonka chocolate bar which he cherishes and savours. Shortly before his birthday, Charlie discovers that Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) is opening the doors to his factory for the first time and has hidden five Golden Tickets in Wonka bars across the world. As the tickets are snatched up, Charlie begins to give up hope until one day he happens upon some money, buys a Wonka bar and finds himself holding the last Golden Ticket.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical is an ambitious effort taking Dahl’s classic story, making it a little more contemporary and featuring an original score. Playwright David Greig is responsible for the comedic script that pays homage to the wit and darkness that made Dahl such an iconic writer. Marc Shaiman, best-known for his work on Hairspray, penned the score and wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman. The songs capture the magic and the spirit of the show, and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Pure Imagination from the 1971 movie is featured too. A particular highlight is Willy Wonka’s entrance song It Must Be Believed to Be Seen which Douglas Hodge delivers with impressive gusto. Sam Mendes’ involvement guaranteed that the show got huge publicity thanks to his increased profile in recent years due to his work on Bond film Skyfall. He directs the show superbly with creative flair and plenty of energy.
Set designer Mark Thompson and lighting designer Paul Pyant deserve a huge mention and lots of credit for the success of the show. The sets are nothing short of magnificent often leaving you with your jaw to the flaw as a new one is revealed. A video screen is used to cover the stage for set changes and distracts you with moving footage which gives you the feeling that Wonka is guiding the winners round the factory. It’s a very clever distraction technique and works surprisingly well. Wonka’s factory is brought to life breath-takingly with incredible sets bursting with colours that are endlessly inventive. We particularly liked the Nuts room where Veruca Salt (Ellie Simons) meets her maker courtesy of some giant dancing squirrels controlled by Oompa-Loompas.
The show boasts a large cast with several children sharing the roles of Charlie, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee. Last night’s performance saw Isaac Rouse take on the role of Charlie and he brought the appropriate amount of wide-eyed optimism to the role. The other children performed well too with Ellie Simons standing out as the demanding ballet-loving Veruca. The Oompa-Loompas are inventively brought to life on stage and entertain throughout. Nigel Planer is a standout member of the case with his wonderful performance as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe.
It is Douglas Hodge that emerges as the true star of the show. From the moment he makes his entrance at the end of the first half, Hodge captivates and mesmerises with his tour-de-force performance. Taking inspiration from Gene Wilder and staying well away from Johnny Depp’s creepy portrayal of Wonka, Hodge puts his own spin on the classic character. He manages to find the right balance between genius and mad man, which is the most important aspect of the role. He also boasts a fine singing voice that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand up every time he burst into song.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical is simply wonderful. It’s a magical production that captures the true essence of Roald Dahl’s classic story. From the opening moments which feature drawings from Dahl’s long-time collaborator illustrator Quentin Blake to the final moments, the show is spectacular. We’ve seen a lot of shows on the West End but nothing that matches the scale and sheer magic of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This is one show that you simply can’t afford to miss and we suggest you take the entire family. We loved it so much we’re already talking about booking tickets to see it again.