For the next three weeks, the venerable old Palace Theatre will play host to the UK tour of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical’. Whilst it will undoubtedly prove a box office success with families seeking distraction at the beginning of the long summer holidays, unfortunately its saccharine sweetness without any of the counteracting sourness left me feeling slightly queasy by the conclusion.
I am not alone in adoring the work of Roald Dahl; his books have sold over 300 million copies worldwide and his work is widely accepted to be amongst the canon of children’s literature, everything from ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to ‘The BFG’ has been voraciously read by succeeding generations of schoolchildren over the last six decades. Part of his appeal is that he is deliciously dark; his characters are purposefully ridiculous caricatures, larger than life examples of sin and stupidity that hold a mirror up to a society that Dahl believed had lost its way, and who usually meet a delightfully gruesome end. However, over the years, as with Grimm’s tales and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, adaptation of Dahl’s stories have been gradually sanitised and made sweeter, this ‘Disneyfication’ sucking the moral from the tale and leaving a hollow rendition.
This musical version of the 1964 story falls firmly into this category, adapted by David Greig with Music & Lyrics by Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman, we get a slick and shiny presentation of Charlie Bucket (tonight played by Haydn Court) living in poverty with his mother and four bedridden grandparents, until the discovery of his ‘Golden Ticket’ and a trip to visit the mysterious Mr Willy Wonka (Gareth Snook) changes his world forever. Accompanied by his loving Grandpa Joe (Michael D’Cruze, sporting a Leeds United bobble hat in homage to Playhouse roots of the production), he meets his fellow lottery winners, each embodying particular vices that Dahl despised; spoilt Veruca Salt (Kazmin Borrer), glutton Augustus Gloop (Robin Simoes Da Silva), television obsessed Mike (Teddy Hinde) and gum chewing Violet (Marisha Morgan). The morality tale plays out with each of them meeting appositely horrible ends as payback for their impurity, leaving Charlie as the heir apparent to Wonka and they all live happily ever after.
Dahl would be spinning in his grave at the sugary simplicity of this adaptation, Greig’s structure of the story quickly falls into a recognisable pattern introducing and despatching characters with monotonous regularity, accompanied by the ensemble as Oompa Loompa looking more like Cybermen from Dr Who than the oddly disconcerting creatures from the book. I would have expected Whitman & Shaiman (Hairspray) to have redeemed this cliched structure with some decent tunes, but they were entirely unmemorable, with only ‘Candyman’ and ‘Pure Imagination’ (both by Lesley Bricusse from the movie version) eliciting any real response from the audience.
The set design (Simon Higlett) had some merit with the Bucket house neatly encapsulated in a single unit with the grandparents perched on top, but this quirky beauty was the most Dahlian thing in the show and was quickly sacrificed after the interval at the altar of video screen special effects, far more cinematic than theatrical. Unlike in better touring productions over the last year (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Bedknobs & Broomsticks) the video worked to overwhelm both the design and choreography rather than work in harmony with it and left this reviewer more bored than amazed.
The actors were also left to compete with this cacophony, and for the most part acquitted themselves well with Court finding the charming simpleness of Charlie and Snook perfectly channelling childlike oddity in his portrayal of the frankly weird Willy Wonka. Elements of pantomime inevitably crept in with Jerry (Ewan Gillies) augmenting his role as TV announcer with some topical references to a certain unnamed newsreader with a hilarious ‘zipper gag’ and Snook breaking the fourth wall to the school age audience present.
There is an expression that ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’ which applies to this production. Each of its constituent parts, whether it be songs, design, adaptation, set or special effects should work, yet when onstage it felt unwieldy, had no heart and did not engage the audience beyond the superficial. Advance ticket sales for the next three weeks in Manchester, and for the entire tour will ensure it is a financial success, but people should save the ticket price and buy the book instead, it would be a far wiser investment.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 12th July 2023
North West End UK Rating: