Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Theatre Royal Drury Lane
24 June 2013
I admits that I have been in two minds about the Sam Mendes' helmed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which is opening tomorrow evening at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane: one the one hand, the music and lyrics are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray and Smash fame), the choreography by Peter Darling (of Matilda and Billy Elliot fame) and Douglas Hodge is playing Willy Wonka; one the other hand, only one song was being used from the popular and much-cherished film musical version, there were endless issues with the casting of the production and word-of-mouth from some who had seen it suggested it was ill-conceived, lacking in heart and quite forgettable.
And in the middle of these considerations was the hand of Mendes himself (who can be hit and miss when it comes to musicals), the casting of Nigel Planer as Grandpa Joe and David Grieg's role as adaptor of the book – all components which could go either way.
The sumptuously refurbished Theatre Royal is incredibly inviting now, and there were, of course, dozens of very excited small persons, so the atmosphere as the production commenced its final preview was intense.
The first astonishing thing about the evening was Mark Thompson's magnificent set: it is simply beautiful, detailed and full of charm and grace, evoking both the squalor and impoverished circumstances of the Bucket family and the warmth and genuine love that binds them.
The second astonishing thing was the performance of Jack Costello as Charlie: perfect in every way, thrilling and bursting with innocence, imagination and absolute unqualified heart he is magnificent at all he does – he listens to the other performers, gives all he can to every moment, sings very well and dances with style and ease.
The third astonishing thing was Planer's Grandpa Joe – he is in inspired form, almost channelling John Lithgow.
The fourth astonishing thing was the music : a torrent of delightful melodies, clever rhythmic pulses and insightful orchestrations – you are never in any doubt that this is a full-blown Broadway musical. Almost Nearly Perfect, A Letter From Charlie Bucket, More Of Him To Love, If Your Mother Were Here and the sensational closing number for Act One, It Must Be Believed To Be Seen – these are the great numbers that support and propel the story in great lashes of vibrant and delicate harmony.
The fifth astonishing thing is the clever way in which each of the other golden ticket holders is presented to the audience – each has a tableau of hilarity and joy.
The sixth astonishing thing is the moment of heart-breaking joy when Charlie discovers he is the fifth golden ticket holder – it is simply done but with style and skill and, truly, only those with cynical or closed hearts will not be moved to tears of joy watching that electric moment of theatre.
The seventh astonishing thing is the arrival of Douglas Hodge's full bodied, miraculous and almost unfeasibly eccentric and delicious Wonka. Once he arrives, he is like a supernova of energy and dazzling ability, mercurial and mesmerising. It is difficult to imagine anyone else as Wonka, so utterly assured is Hodge in this most difficult of roles – he quickly disposes of the shadows of both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. The image of him in the door of the Factory with the huge Wonka Gates in front of him is as filmic as modern musical theatre ever needs to be or tries to be. It would be better if he had a purer more lyrical singing voice, for the new songs would shine better if he did, but this is but a small quibble. Hodge more than gets away with it.
The eighth astonishing thing is the Oompa-Loompas – forget the little green men; what Mendes and Darling have achieved here is breathlessly funny and inspired. They enrich each scene they appear in.
The ninth astonishing thing is that, somewhere in Act Two, you simply forget you are watching a piece of theatre – Hodge, Costello, Planer and everyone else is so good, the direction is so careful and clean, you are utterly transported into the magical world of pure imagination.
The tenth astonishing thing is the moment when Hodge delivers the wonderful Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley (both alarmingly uncredited) song, Pure Imagination, and the glass elevator takes Wonka and Charlie on a skyline tour. It's a masterstroke to make this one familiar number the Eleven O'Clock number here and its inclusion adds a resonance and nostalgia which fits perfectly with the new material, especially numbers such as Strike That! Reverse It!, Simply Second Nature, Vidiots and A Little Me.
To have ten astonishing moments in one musical is quite something, but, in truth, there were many many more: everything Iris Roberts did as Mrs Teavee was delicious and funny; the whole Bucket family is utterly delightful; Ross Dawes and Kate Graham are hilarious as Jerry and Cherry; the Squirrels are sensational and there are no moments when the energy flags, the melodies fall flat or the set, lighting and costumes are not perfect.
It is an absolute sensation – guaranteed to restore and replenish your inner child and to restore your faith in the concept of the good old fashioned musical.
It's as good as, if not better than, Matilda and again there is the real sense that the music and lyrics could have been written by Roald Dahl.
It is easily the best new musical since Matilda and certainly the best “Broadway” musical in years.
Run to see it! And then go again and again because you will not be able to see everything or take everything in on one viewing.
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