Review Round-Up: Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a treat?
Sam Mendes' production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane last night (25 June 2013). With music by Marc Shaiman, it stars Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka
…the glorious new musical at Drury Lane has something crucial over the two fine film versions: a real sense of invention and improvisation, and a jack-in-a-box theatrical performance of style, energy and brilliance by Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka… David Greig's sharp libretto sensibly sticks to the steely structure of the story… Nigel Planer's Grandpa Joe - beautifully done as a cheery old war veteran with medals and music hall memories… The staging by Mendes and choreographer Peter Darling has a sort of vibrant conservatism to it that seems absolutely right for the material, and not least among the available marvels are Paul Pyant's lighting and Paul Arditti's sound design. No situations vacant in Drury Lane for some time now, I imagine.
…even if it doesn't quite live up to the early hype it's a tremendously inventive show. The industrious Oompa-Loompas are among its candy-coated pleasures… Yet the poignancy of Roald Dahl's classic story remains… The first half moves a bit too slowly… It's in the second half that the magic kicks in… In his tails and top hat, Douglas Hodge's Wonka oozes a creepy sort of charisma… The score, by Hairspray creators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is efficient rather than stirring. Visual richness prevails over musical allure, with Mark Thompson's design a parade of stunning backdrops and equally dazzling effects… Sometimes it strays too far into sweet-toothed sentimentality, and there are not many surprises. But Mendes's sense of spectacle impresses, and the soft-centred moments are unexpectedly delicious.
…The only problem is that Marc Shaiman's score never achieves liftoff until Charlie himself becomes the lucky fifth recipient… once we reach the factory, the show never looks back… What stops the show being overwhelmed by spectacle is the performances: above all, Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka… Hodge has the great gift of being engaging and sinister at the same time… Among the supports, it's worth singling out Alex Clatworthy and Jack Shalloo, who lend Charlie's parents a genuine sense of protective kindness. All this is testament to Mendes's skill in masterminding a lavish bonanza of a musical without letting us forget that Dahl's book is a morality play in which vice is punished and virtue gets its edible reward.
…Director Sam Mendes lays on the theatrical goodies with a trowel. The sets are massive, the special effects amazing… Yet it only rarely touches the heart or stimulates the imagination... The various calamities are staged with panache, and the special effects… are highly ingenious… Most of the songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, strike me as serviceable rather than memorable and David Greig's script springs disappointingly few surprises. But the production has two good things going for it. Douglas Hodge is a splendidly charismatic and disconcerting Willy Wonka, brilliantly combining jokes with a twitchy hint of the psycho, and the child performers are superb. I have little doubt that the production will be a big hit. Its combination of imaginative nastiness and shameless sentimentality seem tailor-made for the unlovable age in which we live.
…This musical version is certainly blessed in its leading performers. As the enigmatic chocolatier, the brilliant Douglas Hodge is more school of Gene Wilder (from the 1971 film) than of Johnny Depp… Leaving everyone guessing about his sanity, Hodge's Wonka is a wonderfully unstable cross between a visionary with a screw loose and a Prospero-like figure with a serious game-plan and a yearning to retire… The score by the Hairspray combo of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is tuneful and wholly unmemorable… But it rises to a nicely mischievous wit with the yodelling Germanic Gloop family and with Iris Roberts's hilarious Mrs Teavee… Peter Darling's choreography offers an attractive mix of East End knees-up and synchronised Oompa-Loompa antics… Very engaging but rarely elating, this show is a skillful confection that doesn't quite produce the inspired sugar-rush of magic that's required.
The Times ★★★
…It's a linear, folk-tale-simple narrative and was always going to have trouble surprising us. Except, of course, with spectacle. So that is what Sam Mendes, the director, and Mark Thompson, the designer, concentrate on… Puppetry and illusions earn due gasps… David Greig's book provides a couple of thoughtful improvements on Dahl's sourness by emphasising Wonka's artistic urge… But sad to say the show lacks lift and magic. Marc Shaiman's music is mainly unmemorable and the lyrics are hard to make out in the ensemble numbers… So not boring, not bad. But when it is over little is left, and no urge to rush back bringing all available children (as I did with Matilda). Wonka's patter-songs are full of paradoxes, and that's apt. For this biggest, costliest, most famous show adds up to nothing much.
…The first half is as slow as cold treacle and most of the songs… are duds… On the positive side we can enter clever special effects… and a much better second half. There is a solid central performance from Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka… and the set designs of Wonka's chocolate factory are colourful and plainly expensive. But a really good musical gives you a sugar rush of emotional involvement. You care about the characters. That is absent… Apart from the finale and a duet with Charlie's parents, Marc Shaiman's songs flop and Scott Wittman's lyrics may or may not be witty. The furry sound quality and patchy enunciation made it hard to tell… I wish I could be more enthusiastic about a story which, at its core, has a fine moral that goodness ‘must be believed to be seen'...