Thursday, September 18, 2014

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 17th September 2014

Sam Mendes' Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is big in every conceivable sense of the word.  No expense has been spared in realising Dahl's idiosyncratic, imaginative vision. Elephantine, impossibly detailed sets process across the stage in a dizzying demonstration of what loadsamoney can buy a production. There's no denying that this is the razzliest, dazzliest thing on the London stage at the moment, the sheer scale of the thing a monument to a financially tumescent West End.  But is it any good?

No.  Not really.  

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly not boring. Every couple of minutes they'll wheel out some stunning bit of production design to gawp out, the cast will do a song and dance on it and you'll give them a deserved round of applause. But the experience as a whole is oddly hollow, the glitz in place to camouflage the fact that there's not much going on here.

Somewhere down the line, the wonder and whimsy of Dahl's book has been lost in translation.  At first glance the book appears perfect fodder for adaptation into a stage musical.  After all it's essentially a series of larger-than-life set pieces populated by larger-than-life characters shot through Dahl's trademark sadistic sense of morality, and anyway, it was already successfully translated into musical form in the much loved 1971 film adaptation.  Surely you'd have to try pretty damn hard to screw this up.

But the ball has been fumbled.  Skulking around the back of my mind during the entire show is the RSC's competing Dahl adaptation: the marvellous Matilda, a dramatically precise and beautifully realised musical that's far superior to Charlie.  Now, Matilda is no slouch when it comes to crowd-pleasing theatrics, at least in terms of spectacle Charlie has it beat.  But that's the only area in which Charlie comes out on top.

The crucial difference between is personality.  Matilda Wormwood is rounded, likeable and interesting, whereas Charlie Bucket is the dullest child in the Dahl canon. His personality consists of subservient acceptance of poverty, saint-like niceness and... that's about it.  No wonder this show effectively shunts him off stage for much of the second half, favouring the obnoxious yet far more entertaining gaggle of Salt, Teavee, Beauregarde and Gloop.  But without a decent protagonist to pin our hopes to, the show never quite finds its emotional centre.

This is compounded by the entire first act taking place in the grim, post-apocalyptic nightmare where the Bucket family ekes out their subsistence existence.  This place is so cartoonishly horrible that it makes it impossible to empathise with Charlie's poverty, so your enjoyment largely rests on whether you find the antics of Charlie's bed-dwelling octogenarian relatives amusing. This material isn't awful, but with the titular chocolate factory sitting in tantalising silhouette at the stage rear you wish they'd pick up the pace and get on with it. After all, we're here to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not Charlie and the Mad Max Hellscape.

Even after we retake our seats for the second half we're still not in the damn factory yet. Finally, mercifully, we make our way inside - and from here the show is a straight run of glittering stagecraft until the curtain falls.  But though the children's antics in the factory are entertaining (I particularly liked Veruca Salt, who though a complete nightmare at least knows what she wants out of life), it still never quite hit the dramatic sweet spot.

This is partly the responsibility of Alex Jenning's Willy Wonka, who never achieves the sinister eccentricity that the show needs to work.  He's an aloof, cultured and faintly snooty Wonka, all crucial traits but that quite gel into a fully rounded character.  The key to making Wonka work as a character is to show us glimpses of his insecurities - his desperate need to hide them the reason for all the showmanship.  Jenning's Wonka is too confident a showman - we never see the cracks in his visage.

Also harming the show is the purely functional songbook.  It's notable that by far the best musical number is Pure Imagination, the only song used from the '71 movie.  Here the show achieves that elusive synthesis of emotion, whimsy and spectacle, the glass elevator sequence looking great and, just for a moment, genuinely inspiring.  The rest of the songs are considerably less memorable, it's been less than a day since I saw the show and I can't hum any catchy melodies from it.  Worse, the songs are so loud and lyrically dense that it's difficult to make out what they're singing about.  The worst offender is the frantic rap that introduces Violet Beauregarde, the lyrics completely drowned out in an overly busy soundscape.

I feel somewhat disingenuous slating the show this much.  Herculean efforts have gone into realising Dahl's world on stage, the mind boggles at the amount of time, talent and money required to stage a show this big and complex.  There's a decent argument that it's worth seeing Charlie just to marvel at Mark Thompson's outstanding sets, fractally crammed with infinite flourishes of artistry.  The child performers, no doubt the cream of London's stage schools, all acquit themselves brilliantly, keeping the show consistently entertaining as simple spectacle.  

Spectacle isn't enough though.  Afterwards that hollow feeling grows and grows as you try to grasp the heart that must be somewhere under all these smoke and mirrors.  You come up empty handed. There's sound.  There's fury.  But it in the end it signifies nothing.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  Tickets here.

Huge thanks to Official Theatre and Rebecca Felgate for the ticket.

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