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David Greig: A bit of me kept thinking 'they'll probably fire me'

As Charlie and the Chocolate Factory premieres at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the show's book writer David Greig speaks to WhatsOnStage about the show's development, his 'religious' view of Willy Wonka, and why he hates first nights

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Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
© Helen Maybanks

The mood in the camp as we prepare for press night is very good. We put in our last couple of changes last Saturday, and on this scale making a change of any type is a nightmare - you have to re-rehearse three sets of kids, for a start. Just a line cut can literally take an afternoon. So Sam came out on Tuesday night and said, "Those two changes are going to be taken out. They didn't work. And that's it now, the show is locked."

What I loved about that moment is that he knew we'd overshot and, whereas every other change through previews had definitely improved the show, here we had made two changes that had to come out because they weren't right, and that's when we realised that we had finished. That's not to say it's now perfect, of course, but we need to give the show to the actors.

We feel ready. It would have been awful to have been thinking, ‘Oh God, if only we had another week'. But I'm confident that what we're putting out there is best version of what we can do, and that's all we could've hoped for.

The flip side of that is that now, for first time, I'm beginning to look down. By which I mean for five years I've tried not to think about how massive this thing is - I have never allowed myself to as I genuinely would've frozen. A bit of me never believed we'd get this far anyway. A bit of me kept thinking, ‘they'll probably fire me'. So yesterday [Wednesday] was the first time I didn't have anything to do, and all I could do was sort of look down and feel sick with fear. But it's important to feel that, I think. It's a good sign.

I've never been involved in anything on this scale before. It was great having Sam [Mendes] in rehearsals, because he's used to working at this level and was able to be more playful with the show as a result. Working with someone with that kind of artistic heft is great - it's not on every project your director takes two years out to direct a Bond film.

Sam told me to write the book as if it were a billion dollar movie. That was wonderful because normally on a project like this I would've immediately started thinking about logistics. But Sam and Scott [Wittman] and Marc [Shaiman] all encouraged me to be creative, which was great because it meant I could write Chocolate Factory exactly how I wanted to.

Initially I wrote a play with no songs in it and then Scott and Mark started to say, ‘this is where we see this number going' and ‘we think we could tell that through a song'. They were very generous with me and it certainly never felt like a battle; we all just wanted to tell the story as clearly as possible.

But it's been an enormous challenge - the story is catastrophically difficult to adapt. It has a central protagonist that does next to nothing; it's very much in two halves; it has a major character you don't meet until very late on; it doesn't have a plot to drive it. I spoke to Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book for Matilda, and he said "The trouble with Roald Dahl is that he just f***ing made it up as he went along." And what he meant by that is that Dahl usually invented the next chapter without any particular reference to the chapter before, which is great if you're reading a book to kids night after night, but a nightmare if you're trying to adapt it into a two hour play.

The full collaborative process only began in February when we started rehearsing. The set was designed by that stage and that affected me in terms of the storyline - there was quite a lot to work out just with the scenery changes. Our transitions became so complicated that they have actually become scenes in themselves. And a lot of dialogue changed after I started getting feedback from the actors - you realise that children need much simpler dialogue, for example, and Douglas had some strong ideas about Wonka that we incorporated.

But really once we were all in the room it was like any other production in that it all started to get really bouncy and interesting and everything shaped everything else, as it should do.


In terms of Wonka's character I take a somewhat religious view. Firstly, I think it's a story about a king handing on his crown, like the Dalai Lama finding a new successor or the Old Testament Jehovah wanting to hand over his kingdom. I'm not saying by any means that the show is religious, but for me the story is a deeply primal one. I always felt it was about how we hand over something to a child. That was a very important theme: ‘How do we hand over our kingdoms? How do we pass on what we have made?'

Secondly, I always saw Wonka as a very theatrical figure. I have always seen the chocolate factory as a metaphor for creativity both broadly, or in my case, the creativity of the theatre. For me, the theatre is a chocolate factory. It's a place where anything is possible and it's a place where crazy impresarios and svengalis and berserk conjurers make anything possible. I see the show as metaphor for a backstage tour – a lucky kid has won the chance to go backstage and see the magic.

I never quite bought the image of Willy Wonka that came across in the Tim Burton film, who was a bit Michael Jackson-ish – reclusive, obsessed with childhood. I never thought he was that. Wonka is not obsessed with childhood, he is obsessed with creativity, with invention, with magic. He has to hand down his kingdom and does not want to hand it to an adult because adults are set in their ways, so he scours the land like the Dalai Lama. He needs the best young brain in the country and that happens to belong to the most unlikely and humble child. The thing about Wonka is that he doesn't give a f*** if you don't like him. He only wants to know what is in you.

Tom Klenerman (Charlie)
© Helen Maybanks
I hope very much that the real-life Charlie Buckets will be able to see the show. I know that all the people involved in the production will try to make sure there are deals and such that will mean groups of schoolkids can come see the show. Obviously it's not subsidized theatre and that is just something that one just has to accept, but the access issue is something I am very aware of. In a funny way I think a lot of Charlie Buckets will come because Mr Bucket or Grandpa Joe will say, "Our one treat this year is to take the whole family to see this show."

I know it will cost a lot and I'm not trying to be too sentimental, but what I'm trying to get at is that people who don't go to the theatre a lot may feel that this is a show worth seeing as a treat. One of the reasons I took the job on was because I wanted to be certain that the kid in row 49 who is having their first encounter with theatre will not just have an amazing night but will see something with as much heart and depth as I could possibly muster.

So if and when the Bucket family do come I feel a real sense of responsibility that what they see absolutely rewards them in terms of everything they would want from a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You can be your bottom dollar that every kid will have their favourite scene in the book and will want to see it on stage. And they'll want the Oompa Loompas to look fantastic and the chocolate factory to be spectacular. It's a big responsibility.

These days, in terms of reviews, there is nowhere to hide. We could have previewed the show in Southampton but people would still have come and tweeted about it and written about it on WhatsOnStage. Plus, considering the sheer cost and scale of doing this, I don't think it would have been possible to reproduce it in a smaller venue. So for a whole mixture of reasons the people at the top, Sam and Warner Brothers, thought we should play an honest hand and open straight in the West End, with a long enough preview period to fix things.

I don't feel any hostility about being reviewed. The theatrical landscape is very different now - everyone is a reviewer and I think that's a good (if occasionally painful) thing as an artist. Even if I wanted to, it would be very difficult to avoid the reviews, seeing as I'm on Twitter and Facebook.

I appreciate that on Charlie we're doing the so-called ‘New York System', whereby we have reviewers in over the course of a few nights and then the first night is essentially a gala party. I usually hate first nights. They terrify me, they make the actors nervous and they're an odd audience as well. I think this way everybody feels that the reviewers are seeing the show with a normal audience, so we have a few chances to do the show well then have a party and not be too stressed about it.

I'm as guilty as anyone of looking at a big project and thinking it's bound to be a success because of its sheer scale. I've always been the little guy, but suddenly I'm opening Charlie, which is about as big as it gets. I just hope that both the public and the press realise that this is a production offered without an ounce of cynicism. Everybody got involved because it was a chance to play in the chocolate factory. Who wouldn't want to do that?

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