Charlie and the Chocolate Factory review – a sweet treat with added robot Oompa Loompa's
The show is revived in the UK for the first time since its West End run
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical, based on the seminal Roald Dahl book (another Dahl tale is currently wowing on screens) is an oddly shaped affair. Act one is dominated by young dreamer Charlie Bucket and his family, with interruptions from other quirky young children (all of whom are pining for a prized golden ticket granting them access to the eponymous factory) until the maverick owner Willy Wonka erupts onto the scene at the very end. Act two is totally dominated by the outrageous chocolatier.
This lopsidedness is no problem in James Brining's lavish production for Leeds Playhouse, thanks mainly to some terrific performances and Simon Higlett's no-holds-barred stage designs – featuring some deliciously inventive costumes, too!
A monster mass of scrap metal sits centre-stage for the first half, opening out to reveal a newsagent's and then the Bucket residence: four grandparents stuffed into one bed upstairs, a ladder and a bucket their means of communication with terra firma. Then, once Willy Wonka appears through the impressive portico of his factory, act two is mostly about illusion – including waterfalls of chocolate and footfalls setting lights blazing (though a word for the squirrels testing nuts would not be amiss).
In this revival four young actors (two male, two female) alternate the part of Charlie, so all I can do is say that Noah Walton is outstanding – and I would expect no less from the other three. With immaculate diction, a powerful singing voice and neat comic timing, he copes with everything that the part throws at him with admirable composure and still comes up smiling.
Gareth Snook's Willy Wonka has the necessary air of mystery (menace even) to go with the flamboyance. Dominating the stage whenever he is on with a smile that could indicate benevolence or malice, Snook's Wonka is prone to contradicting himself with insouciant innocence. He is the sort of person only someone with the curiosity and good nature of Charlie Bucket could like.
David Greig's book inserts breaking news broadcasts of Jerry and Cherry (Ewan Gillies and Lucy Hutchinson – both very funny) bringing us the other four ticket holders in richly comic, if not entirely PC, terms in their moment of triumph. The Bucket family members slip into something a tad classier as parents of the winners. The Gloop family butchers, all lederhosen and dirndls, are fun and there is something vaguely touching about Christopher Howell's Mr Salt's devotion to his obnoxious daughter Veruca (Kazmin Borrer alternating the demure and the devilish).
Among a large and excellent cast Michael D'Cruze (Grandpa Joe) and Leonie Spilsbury give stand-out performances, he suitably devoted and protective of his grandson, she signing all her lines as Mrs Bucket (very effective even to those without hearing difficulties), getting to sing the undoubted hit song, "The Candy Man" and doubling as a rather different harassed mother, Mrs Teavee.
Any reservations about the production centre on the presentation of the Oompa Loompas, a touchy subject to be sure, but I'm unconvinced by robots. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's 2013 songs don't quite live up to the quality of those remaining from the 1971 film, at least not in the serious songs – they have plenty of fun with the parodies. Orchestrated by David Shrubsole and played by a ten-piece band under MD Ellen Campbell, the songs are pleasing, but, for the most part, not memorable.