Roald Dahl’s tales have so far stood the test of time and are still proving fruitful for adaptations and reinterpretations.
Aside from Matilda the Musical, also currently on in the West End, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Theatre Royal Drury Lane follows hot on the heels of a film adaptation spearheaded by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, which itself came 34 years after Gene Wilder’s classic turn as Willy Wonka. (That may seem a long time, but the latter seems to have stuck in the public conscience).
So what can the theatre show offer that you can’t just get from choosing one of the movies and slouching in front of the TV?
Well, it should go without saying but there’s a vast sprinkling (literally…) of theatre magic that brings Dahl’s story alive, helped no doubt by director Sam Mendes. Known for rather grittier movies such as American Beauty, Skyfall and Spectre, Mendes perhaps enjoyed the chance to let loose with his creativity here and the love that must have gone into it shows; he has said in interviews it was one of his favourite books as a child.
To remind any forgetful readers, the story follows Charlie Bucket, who lives in what can only be described as a slum with his parents- one of whom was just made redundant- and his four grandparents who haven’t left their huge bed in many years. When enigmatic chocolatier Willy Wonka announces a competition for five children who find a golden ticket to enjoy a tour of his factory, the world goes sugar mad.
After spending Act One being introduced to the Bucket family and then each of the four other golden ticket winners, Act Two is where the journey really begins, going deep into the factory with an almost psychotic Wonka as the guide.
The contrast between dark, colourless sets in the first act to represent the Bucket family’s squalor, and the vivid, bright other families as they are introduced inside a huge TV set on the news (a great idea, a stage within a stage) is so effective. Even more so, of course, when Act Two is totally technicolour and larger than life.
With rooms including a chocolate waterfall, the roast dinner bubblegum with somewhat adverse side effects and a workforce of hypnotic squirrels, the promise of Wonka’s factory lives up to expectations.
For a musical a lot of the songs are fairly forgettable, but there are some highlights nonetheless – Pure Imagination unsurprisingly gets the biggest applause of the show and even some wayward audience members singing along, and the Oompa Loompas’ techno Vidiots is a funky thrill. “No-one ever goes back to normal after they’ve been on television,” Wonka puts in his two cents.
Speaking of the Oompa Loompas, they really are done well in what must be a huge technical challenge. It’s a relief since, strangely, this is a story that somehow hinges on the craziness, likeability and choreography of these ever-odd people.
But taking their odd level and raising it quite some is Jonathan Slinger as Willy Wonka himself. From the moment he first appears towards the end of Act One he steals the stage, keeping all eyes on him at all times. His attire makes him look like the Joker, especially his purple jacket, pale face and dark lips, but his psychotic eyes and demeanour really sell it. Without spoiling anything, the very beginning and very end of Act Two are particular ‘wow’ moments.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t fantastic too – everyone on stage plays their part and gels together admirably. But it’s hardly surprising that in such a show, anchored around a total madman, everyone else pales in comparison.
One small quibble would be that in my performance, a Wednesday matinee, it was often very hard to decipher any words in most of the songs. Whether this is because we were so close to the stage and the orchestra or whether it would have been the same throughout the auditorium I don’t know, but it was disappointing.
Regardless, the inventiveness of bringing such a well-loved story with so many nuances and iconic moments has to be admired and it really is a fun ride. Now, Matilda next?