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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The blockbuster new Roald Dahl musical at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane proves a faithful yet inventive treat, says Michael Coveney

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
© Helen Maybanks

Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has gone through various transformations, but 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.

Gene Wilder may have been more mischievously sinister and Johnny Depp more weirdly Freudian, but Hodge is a lethal ringmaster, a bonkers Barnum in plum frock coat and green satin trews who sounds out Charlie in surprise fashion, conducts the orchestra at the start of the second act and greets his anointed successor from a circle box.

He's like some surreal music hall trickster with a sly, double-edged danger in his dealings with the five golden ticket winners; it's Wonka's function as both a fantasy Pied Piper and a moralising Child Catcher to change the world for the better, and what could be better than limitless chocolate bars, enjoyed in moderation?

Director Sam Mendes and designer Mark Thompson have created a Dahlian (Daliesque?) dreamland that echoes the drawings of Quentin Blake - a lone cocoa bean on the curtain leads into a chocolate-making animated cartoon. And David Greig's sharp libretto sensibly sticks to the steely structure of the story: the five children and their family members enter the factory for an adventure that exposes their characters.

Tom Klenerman (Charlie)
© Helen Maybanks
Dahl's story parallels the indulgence in sweets and the obsession with television. The winning children are seen, brilliantly, in "live" TV insets with a yodelling number for Gloop and his mother (Jasna Ivir), a stick and cane item for Veruca Salt and her father (Clive Carter in Peter Bowles pin-stripes), and a funky rap break-out for gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde and her dad (the elasticated Paul J Medford).

This indicates the functional eclecticism of the musical comedy score by Hairspray authors Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Wittman (lyrics, with Shaiman). It's terrific, but gains an extra audience-pleasing dimension in the inclusion, late on, of "Pure Imagination," written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the Wilder movie, as Wonka and Charlie take off in the golden elevator, flying out over the front stalls, just one of many scenic coups in Thompson's design; this places the town outside the factory gates on a gargantuan rubbish dump and creates the journey of the show with back projections and whizzing filmic scenery.

And how would they do the Oompa-Loompas, the chocolate bean loving jungle tribe whom Wonka has enlisted as his work-force? At first they are half-human dancing puppets, then little dwarfish people, then huge dancing squirrels; their transformations are as magical as the scenic wonders of Wonka's wonderland.

At first, we are in the dismal reality of Charlie's impoverished household, living on a diet of thin cabbage gruel, four grandparents in the one big bed. As the news gets better, the bed separates, the occupants get up and dance, a clear reference to the zimmer-frame number in the stage version of The Producers; and Nigel Planer's Grandpa Joe - beautifully done as a cheery old war veteran with medals and music hall memories - joins in the fun.

Billy Boyle, Roni Page and Myra Sands are the other rejuvenated seniors "off to bed now, counting sheep; hope we don't die in our sleep." The lyrics are full of such felicities, and Greig's book is as faithfully inventive a job on Dahl as his fellow playwright Dennis Kelly's was on Matilda.

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.

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