Charlie & The Chocolate Factory: The Musical Live In The West End

I adore the stories of Roald Dahl. I have a first edition of The Fantastic Mr Fox signed by the man himself, a box set of his most famous tales adorns the bookcase in my hall and my DVD collection is full of Hollywood’s attempts to bring his stories to life with varying degrees of success. And so, ever since Charlie & The Chocolate Factory opened to rave reviews in London’s West End taking a trip and experiencing the cocoa wonderland of Willy Wonka has been a huge priority.

And so, along with my parents, as a birthday treat, I headed to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to take in a matinee performance. The first thing I need to do is thank my parents for the tickets, because when you are sitting in the stalls, 5 rows from the front, it’s fair to say you’re in pretty much the best seats in the house. It’s a shame though, that the house wasn’t as spectacular as I was expecting. The Theatre Royal, well a beautiful old building felt just like any other theatre, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it as I had been when I was last in the West End seeing Les Miserables.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane - Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

The musical is essentially, as you’d expect divided up into two acts: pre and post Wonka. Act 1 tells the story of Charlie Bucket, the golden tickets and introduces us to the competition winners, climaxing with the arrival of Willy Wonka. Act 2 resumes with the Chocolate Factory and the events that unfold within.

Sadly though the first thing that hit me was that in an effort to condense the story down into a manageable and watchable length they have cut out and reworked elements of the story in a way that just didn’t feel right. It seemed that they have removed has destroyed the tone of the story; the plight of the Bucket’s never quiet conveyed as you felt it should be and the moral compass of Charlie breaking slightly in his luck regarding a golden ticket. The enough of the story remains to flow but only echoes Dahl’s narrative on a superficial level lacking, however, his clever undercurrents and messages.

My other problem, and whether it was down to the location of the seats in relation to the auditorium sound system I am not sure, is that throughout the opening act I found it very hard on occasions to have any idea what the performers where singing. Often, it would come across as more of a screeched reverberation than recognisable diction. I still don’t know what half of the lyrics sung by Mike Teavee were!

Now, you can’t visit the Chocolate Factory without meeting Willy Wonka, and annoyingly for me, Mr Wonka was the biggest let down of the whole performance. He was just too nice and far too comedic. I kept having visions of a “Celebrity” special performance in which his role was played by Jack Whitehall. Willy Wonka should be simplistic and dark and almost menacing with his view on life. Not jovial and happy and bordering on stand up comic. Wonka’s story is about transformation and realisation from meeting Charlie and this never comes over. Hollywood’s portrayals of Wonka are more accurate.

Willy Wonka - Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

I was pleased, however, to see that the Oompa-Loompa’s are more pigmy and less “orange” which is back in keeping with Dahl’s original imagery and for most of the time, the way they cleverly use the set and costume design to artificially shorted the height of the performers really does work. In creating the illusion of the workers from Loompalnd. There are a couple of moments that fail to convince but only a couple.

Going back to my original problem with the musical though; with the liberties taken with the story; while unfortunate but passable in the opening act, after the interval they have badly struck and reversed just a little too much for the story. There is always going to be a balancing act of how you incorporate the original written prose with the visualisation expected from the two Hollywood films, and so, by leaving out famous elements – the Oompa-Loompa song for instance – from the musical, you end up feeling slightly robbed, or that you somehow haven’t been giving everything you expected. Which original or not.

All is not lost though, because while the story may not be as expanded as you expect and the characters not as traditionally dark as you may want, technically the production is stunning. The use of the stage, the sets and the interaction between the cast and their surroundings is a joy to behold. There are times when it really is impressive and the emotional impact and pure imagination of the glass elevator took me instantly back to my childhood. Before I went, I was most fearful of how they would handle the interior of the Chocolate factory, and the madness of Wonka’s creations but truly, I need not have worried. The story maybe a little limp in places, but each room, each breaking of the rules is handled better than I could have ever predicted.

Willy Wonka & Charlie Bucket in the Glass Elevator - Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

I really am glad to have seen Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, and to have seen it in it’s full glory on the West End stage. While I am slightly disappointed that it didn’t live up to the, arguably, heightened expectations I had of it, part of me doesn’t mind because the tale is true enough to the source, that when I stopped trying to compare it to the image in my head and simply sat back and enjoyed the tale Roald Dalh gave to us all, I remembered just how sweet a story it truly is.

7 out of 10 stars (7 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Stage First Edition

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