Benet Catty Productions

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - London (WE) 2013

Nov 5, 2013

(NB: published review slightly abbreviated from full version displayed here)

Nobody could claim an absence of range in this year's new musical offerings. We have Irish romance (Once); fairy tale (The Light Princess); the Profumo Affair (Stephen Ward), World War Two (From Here to Eternity) and, sadly now closed, The Colour Purple.

As sometimes happens, the one sure-fire great night out proves to be very much less than expected. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a dud.

There have been many great family musicals over the years. Starlight Express and Joseph introduced generations of young people to the theatre (including me) in the 80s and 90s. Disney's Beauty and the Beast brought Las Vegas spectacle to the Dominion. The Lion King showed people of all ages what imagination could do. Matilda, most recently, has been the biggest monster hit from this country since Mamma Mia. No wonder the Roald Dahl back catalogue seemed like a safe place to look for possible stage material.

Think again. There is not a single aspect of Charlie that equals anything in any of those previous shows. One of the great set designers of the last thirty years, Mark Thompson, provides plenty of spectacle, albeit mostly in the second half, but induced more wows with Joseph or indeed Bombay Dreams than he is able to do here. Thrills were much more plentiful in Starlight. Children were given more treats by Beauty. And everyone was much better served by The Lion King.

Charlie's two big shortcomings - from which all the others come - are easily identifiable.

The first is that Dahl's great children's book, a favourite of many generations of children, has very little plot. A little poor boy wins a golden ticket to a famous chocolate factory along with four variously disagreeable children. (That's Act One.) They all get shown around the factory, four of the children come to sticky ends and Charlie gets to take over the factory. (That's Act Two.) This does not justify two and a half hours of stage time and so the show moves at a snail's pace.

The famous 1971 film (in which Gene Wilder made a definitive Willy Wonka) made changes to the story to give it more life (the villainous Slugworth sub-plot, Charlie's naughty moment in the factory that he needs to redeem later). Matilda developed stories and characters for all the protagonists far beyond anything Dahl wrote. It was faithful, not slavish. Without a strong narrative, few musicals can satisfy.

The second disappointment is the writing. Mark Shaiman and Scott Whitman (much praised for their work on the hit musical Hairspray and the TV drama Smash) provide a collection of generic patter songs and pastiches which would better suit Smash and few of which suit the story or tone. The humourless lyrics (when you can hear them) add little. Only the Act One finale, "It Must Be Believed to be Seen" lodges in the memory.

And what David Greig, a wonderful playwright, thought he was doing with his almost invisible script (which provides three gags in the whole evening) is a mystery. Again, Dennis Kelly did infinitely better with Matilda.

Charlie's many disappointments are no reflection on the terrific cast, lead by the ever-great Douglas Hodge who injects a vaudevillian quirkiness to his Wonka. Nigel Planer as Grandpa Joe (in a role which reminds us how long ago The Young Ones was) is charming and charismatic, making the best of material unworthy of his comic gifts. Amongst the other adults, Paul J Medford, one of the original Five Guys Named Moe twenty years ago, remains a dazzling dancer and singer, making one yearn for him to have a show to himself.

Sam Mendes, lionised for Skyfall and Oscar-winner for American Beauty, shows none of the flair that has made him so successful in both theatre and film. Act One is 80% one static scene in which almost nothing happens. Act Two is a series of set pieces. Mendes' work doesn't even approach the quality his production company (but not him) achieved on Shrek at the same address, or his production of Oliver! in the 90s (revived much since) or The Fix or even Company. And when a production of Company, a show about stasis, is more imaginatively realised than a children's show about imagination you know something has gone awry.

Charlie is a lesson in how some of the great books do not necessarily make great shows. Unusually, though, it doesn't make the usual mistakes of most bad musicals. Flops are usually distinguished by sentimentality, slushiness, cheesiness or cliche. This is none of those things. But it's not anything else either.

Thinking that something is "good enough" (as there's no way those involved could have thought they'd written a masterwork) is usually a way of making sure it isn't. Willy Wonka wouldn't settle for that. Audiences shouldn't have to either.

I'd buy your chocolate elsewhere.

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