Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, Adapted by David Greig
Music by Marc Shaiman, Directed by Sam Mendes
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2B 6JF
Any adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is inevitably going to begin life very much under the twin shadows of Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp.
Add to that a wildly popular staging of Dahl's Matilda only recently opened on The West End and the pressure is high for Sam Mendes' current attempt at Charlie at the Theatre Royal.
While there are clear influences from both films, I am also pleased that this dazzling version courageously leaps out from the shadows to give us a stunningly realized production brimming with all the vitality bursting from the pages of Dahl's novel. With an animated prologue extolling the virtues of chocolate, illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose work has become so indelibly linked to Dahl's tales, Mendes returns us to an original vision while at the same time pushing our expectations of theater, through animation, clever use of cinematic projection, and a delightful use of space (the golden ticket winners are broadcast through a giant television that fills up the stage with actors inside watched by the Bucket family).
There is even good old-fashioned theatrical slight of hand with wonderfully well-executed Oompa Loompas, whose foreshortened limbs skirt the right side of postmodern kitsch, so deliciously endearing when onstage that we suspend disbelief to revel in Mark Thompson's witty costuming. In fact it is Thompson's set design that envelops us so imaginatively and adds so much wonder to the show. It richly evokes the poverty of Charlie and his family in their ramshackle home by the dump, the grandparents' bed forming the narrative focal point of the first half of the play.
The touching dynamic between Charlie and his family, especially the warmth between him and Nigel Planer's lovable Grandpa Joe gives this play heart and firmly invests us emotionally in the eponymous little boy – played with heart-melting innocence and spark by Isaac Rouse on the night we saw it – and his story, so much so that there are tears of joy when he finally gets his ticket into the factory, that he has finally got his due reward. Alas, the songs, at least in the first half, are layered, enjoyable, and full-bodied, but lean dangerously towards treacly schmaltz.
By intermission we are more than ready for the sharp wit and charisma of Douglas Hodge's exuberant Wonka, and what a wonder of giddy genius and larger-than-life presence Hodge brings to the role, exhibiting not only a contagious joy, but also a surprising vulnerability. Little touches like the shy, fearful looks he begins to give the audience as he enters in the second half conducting the orchestra, demonstrate the intelligence of an actor who can engender trust, suspicion, and sympathy adeptly in the same moment, all with a dash of charm.
The music picks up momentum in the second half, as does the excitement. Wonka's helpers leave us craving just one more moment of their hilarious and justice-exacting mischief. The bliss we feel for and with Charlie at the end might only be topped by amazement at the magic by which Hodge's character departs, elevating him to a folkloric figure of myth, solidifying this piece of musical theater as a kaleidoscopic extravaganza that manages to still touch the soul.