Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
27 March 2015
Almost two years after it opened in the beautifully restored Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Sam Mendes' production of the musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in excellent shape. Nothing indicates that more clearly than the show not missing a beat despite the fact that three understudies were called upon to perform. The company didn't hiccup: those in the audience who did not know the usual leads were not appearing would have been none the wiser, apart from the notices in the foyer. The standard of performance is excellent.
Roald Dahl is represented twice on the stages of London at present, with a third production based on his writings imminent. Apart from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda powers on at the Cambridge Theatre, while a non-musical adaptation of The Twits is about to open at the Royal Court. Dahl has never been so well featured on theatre hoardings as at present.
Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are very different musicals. Matilda is quirky, rebellious, anarchic, with lyrics and score from a virgin of the musical theatre: Tim Minchin. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a good old-fashioned Broadway musical, with a score and lyrics from tried and true Broadway collaborators: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Despite sharing an original source author, the styles of the two pieces could not be more different. Matilda turns on the truthfulness of its performances, its excesses and its rebellious core. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory requires real heart to power the set pieces and moral lessons which are fused in its confectionary form.
Happily, the current company exude heart and their total commitment is infectious and exhilarating.
Things have changed, or settled into lavish comfort, since the show first opened. Wisely, the introductory film about the making of chocolate (I think that was the subject) has been dropped and there have been some snips to the music. Routines are polished and well-drilled; Mark Thompson's wonderfully colourful, and sometimes colourless, costumes and sets are in pristine shape and conjure up the requisite sense of magic effortlessly.
The tunefulness and sprightly fun of Marc Shaiman's music remains infectious and sweet. Familiarity with them breeds contentment. His and Scott Wittman's lyrics snap, crackle and pop, delighting and confounding all at once – commensurate with the themes of the work, the unexpected is the (very happy) order of the day. Like a box of chocolate selections, the songs they provide each bring their own unique pleasure, some sweet, some brittle, some dark, some gooey. There is one old favourite, the Lesley Bricusse and Anthony Newley song, Pure Imagination, in the mix too, and it's presence enhances the collection, which offers something to delight everyone.
Ewan Rutherford was in splendid form as Charlie. He has a committed stage presence, very clear diction, a true and very pleasant singing voice, and that sense of wonder, charm and innocence that Charlie must have for the show to work. He does not overdo anything and he establishes, easily and well, his adoration of his Grandpa Joe and his devotion to his parents and other grandparents. The sense of love in the Bucket family is ripe and Rutherford is firm as its centre. He pulses with empathy for everyone he encounters – it's a terrifically assured performance for a very young man.
The moment when Charlie opens the chocolate bar, and finds the golden ticket, is magical. Rutherford plays it gorgeously and I doubt there was a dry eye in the house, watching his face melt into impossible happiness. Certainly there were very audible gasps, thunderclaps of applause and cries of joy – even though you know Charlie will get the ticket, the moment he does is like an adrenalin shot straight to your happy place.
Standing in for Alex Jennings, Ross Dawes was a splendiferous Willy Wonka in every way. In particular, it was very pleasing to hear the score sung really well. Dawes has a flexible, interesting voice, strong at the top and expressive throughout. He managed the patter songs well, every word audible, every note given full measure, and he rose to the occasion of Pure Imagination with a full, velvety tone. It Must Be Believed To Be Seen and Strike That! Reverse It! were splendid numbers, bursting with style.
Dawes makes Wonka eccentric and nonchalant, but never vicious or tawdry. It's a sensible, rounded characterisation which works extremely well with Charlie, the adults, the obnoxious golden ticket holding children and the delightful Oompa Loompas. He is a Wonka for all Seasons, irritable, sanguine and, well, wonky: mercurial and mischievous is the best way to sum him up.
This is not the book, nor is it either movie. So, if you come expecting a Wonka that matches your own imagination of the character or the different but idiosyncratic creations of Messrs Wilder and Depp, you may be disappointed. But if you come with an open mind, Dawes' Wonka will sweep you away in a beguiling turn, radiating colour and lush foolery.
As Grandpa Joe, Billy Boyle is the perfect blend of wily old goat, kindly grandfather, loving patriarch and teenage lout. There is a shifty precision about the twinkle in his eye which rivets attention. His work with Rutherford is finely tuned; they convince as older/younger versions of each other. He sings well and takes the limelight when he should. It's a generous, big hearted performance. The rest of the aged members of the Bucket family – Antony Reed, Roni Page and Myra Sands – provide terrific, wide-eyed and mad hair support.
The parents of the golden ticket holders are an absolute joy.
Josefina Gabrielle is a complete riot as the dipsomaniac Mrs Teavee, a kind of Donna Reed meets A Delicate Balance creation; perfect hair, make-up, dress and hand bag, she is a motherly fusion of whimsy and secret tipple. Gabriella conveys the horror of dealing with her deranged son in searing detail, smiling all the way. Her tumble down the edible grass bank is comic bliss. Delicious in every way.
Clive Carter schmucks up magnificently as the ghastly, grasping tycoon, Mr Salt, enslaved to his tyrannical, tutu-wearing daughter dictator, Veruca (a spirited and full throttle turn from Amy Carter). He is in fine voice and has made the character oily, slippery and repulsive in all the right ways. Paul J Medford is terrific as the bemused, bewildered Mr Beauregarde and his verve and vocal work is prickly with power and confident glee. Jasna Ivir makes Mrs Gloop a bewildered, yodelling anachronism – precise and indulgent, she pitches her excesses perfectly.
There is excellent work too from Cherry (Kate Graham) and Jerry (Derek Hagen), the impossibly pretty television news room rivals. The venom beneath the veneer is tangible, terrifically judged. Richard Dempsey and Kirsty Malpass are quite perfect as Charlie's mother and father and their mournful hymn, If Your Mother Were Here, is truly beautiful, and sums up the sincerity and commitment that fuels the whole Bucket family.
Apart from Veruca, and to a limited extent Augustus (Vincent Finch giving his all), the golden ticket holders apart from Charlie are a little overwhelmed by the task posed for them by the score, lyrics and sound design (Paul Arditti). This is not the fault of the performers: the task is just too difficult. To sing at the tempi set, with the required level of impeccable diction, to be heard clearly in the Circle – it is a lot to ask a young ‘un. One wonders if it all might work better if adults played the children other than Charlie; adults should be able to deliver the comic and vocal dexterity required. It is essential to have a Charlie the correct age; whether other child performers are as critical is up for debate.
Mendes' imagining of the Oompa Loompas is as charming and intoxicating as it was on first viewing. Indeed, multiple viewings assist in understanding the intricacy and ebullience of their work. Each and every one of the team give full value, work with zest and vibrant eloquence – their numbers help make the second Act an uninterrupted joy.
Musical director Nigel Lilley does excellent work throughout. The orchestra delivers a fresh and vibrant accompaniment and all of the singing, ensemble and principals, is first class and energised. It is a delight to listen to such accomplished musicians, onstage and off, bring life to notes, tunes and harmonies. Peter Darling's inventive and deft choreography enhances proceedings immeasurably, bringing goofiness and pizazz in equal measure.
Happily, the glass elevator now rises from the stage and travels high into the auditorium and above the heads of the audience in the stalls. It's a magical moment of exquisite wonder and supreme contentment. Partly, that is down to Pure Imagination, which Wonka sings while Charlie and he use the elevator to survey the Wonka kingdom. But, it's not just that. It's the passing of the mantle moment. Like the final image of a silhouetted Charlie doffing his hat to a retired Willy Wonka, it speaks directly to the inner child in all of us, no matter what age, who just wants the chance to be put in charge of the sweet shop.
Candy for the eyes, ears and soul.