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Michael Coveney: Chocs away, as Charlie checks into the refurbished Theatre Royal

By • London

Critics clocked into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over the weekend - reviews appear on Wednesday - with a chance, too, to experience the re-decoration of the rotunda, the main staircases and the Grand Saloon in the magnificent Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Gone the red carpets and the hideous Ronnie Wood painting of the Ivy Restaurant regulars; hello to lighter beige carpets (which will show the dirt more), and extra light with newly revealed windows in the Grand Saloon.

Douglas Hodge (centre) in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Douglas Hodge (centre) in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The carpets in the Saloon have gone altogether, making the floor of wooden boards seem a bit like a dance floor. It will take time to get used to this farewell to red plush. But the Georgian decoration on the ceiling has been gloriously restored, and the green marble pillars... well, re-marbled?

I heard dark mutterings about blocked ladies' loos in the grand circle, though, and it will be a welcome improvement when some nice big flower pots are placed on the rather dismal-looking terrace outside the windows on the Saloon level. But when I sat down in my seat in the stalls it just sort of went "phut" beneath me, its springs long dead, and I'm not nearly as fat as the boy who was playing Augustus Gloop.

I can't be sure, incidentally, which boy was playing Augustus Gloop - the infant glutton who gets swallowed up in the chocolate waterfall - as there was no indication or slip in the programme, or indeed at the PR desk, as to which of the three little fatties it was whom we actually saw.

I was told as I left the theatre that there had been some announcements about the child actors around the theatre, but none that I noticed, and so I've spent a couple of days scrutinising the tiny programme mug shots and deducing that I saw Tom Klenerman as Charlie Bucket, Harrison Slater (possibly) as Gloop, Tia Noakes as Veruca Salt and... oh, I give up guessing who was Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teaves.

Even more surprising, and reprehensible, is the omission of any credit in the programme for Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse who wrote the song "Pure Imagination" (in the 1971 Gene Wilder movie version) that has been slotted into the score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Hairspray writers.

What the programme does have is the longest list of production credits I've ever seen on a West End show, hundreds of them, including chaperones, dressers, an automation project scheme, two dozen costume makers, affiliate producers, puppeteers, dance associates (five of them backing up choreographer Peter Darling, who can add this latest hit show to Billy Elliot and Matilda), sponsors (including a dermatalogical company and The Times) and even a health and safety consultant called Chris Luscombe, surely not the well-known director... though you could easily think of a director on this show as a sort of health and safety consultant, if not a Napoleonic general; Sam Mendes has said how the whole project has been more difficult and challenging even than directing the James Bond movie, Skyfall.

The audience was unsurprisingly chokka with young children in the eight-to-twelve-year-old category and it was interesting to see journalistic colleagues like Jim White and Rose Millard rolling up with offspring. The great thing about this - and the same is true at Matilda - there's no great rush at the bar, so for once you feel that the exorbitant prices charged for a stoop of wine are at least understandable in making up for the customer shortfall.

Every time there's a Dahl film or show, the family loyally shows up to support the overall cause - which also includes Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity (their words, not mine) and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at Great Missenden, Bucks; this time, it's the turn of daughter Ophelia Dahl, who unsurprisingly says that she loves everything about David Greig's libretto, Mark Thompson's design and Sam Mendes' production.

She also suggests, in the programme, that Dahl himself would have thought the adaptation "marvellous". That would be a turn-up. He walked away in disgust from the Gene Wilder movie, which really is delightful, and he was long dead when the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version hit the screens in 2005. That latter film is musically interesting in that it sets the Oompa-Loompa lyrics that Dahl actually wrote in the original story to some pretty weird and wonderful music by Danny Elfman.

Dahl was the most brilliant old curmudgeon and rarely had a good word for anyone, even himself. But he operated on a different level of cattiness as lately exhibited by Gene Wilder. The retired 80 year-old Wilder, a complete comedy genius in my view, told a television chat show host last week that he thought the Warner Brothers re-make, directed by Burton, was an insult and that he didn't much rate Burton as a director.

That's the spirit! I certainly prefer the first film, directed by Mel Stuart, and Wilder's performance, to Burton and Depp's, and as for the stage show... well, we'll just have to wait and see. Warner Bros Theatre Ventures are the lead producers at Drury Lane and it will be interesting to see if Gene Wilder's on the guest list at Tuesday night's gala opening... there's nothing quite like adding injury to insult in the wonderful business of show.

Tags: Charlie and the Chocolate FactorySam MendesGene WilderTheatre Royal Drury Lane


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