Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Directed by Sam Mendes
Theatre Royal Drury Lane

by Joanna Orland

By this point, we’ve all seen at least one of the film adaptations of Roald Dahl’s dark tale of a young Charlie Bucket who wins a golden ticket to the weird and somewhat wonderful Wonka Chocolate Factory. Johnny Depp stars as Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of 2005, while Gene Wilder gives the most iconic performance in the 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

The stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Sam Mendes, is lacking the music of the 1971 version, and the oddities of the 2005 one. The music is mediocre at best, with only one song from the original movie being adapted in the form of “Pure Imagination”.  The only memorable original song of this new version is “Vidiots”, mostly due to the visual spectacle that accompanies it.

The cast too is underwhelming.  Sadly, Alex Jennings as Willy Wonka himself is the least enigmatic of all the actors.  Missing the over-the-top campness that Johnny Depp brings to the role, and the sinister charm of Gene Wilder, Jennings merely brings flat-singing and a face reminiscent of Cliff Richard.  While few could compare with Depp and especially Wilder in the role, surely London’s West End community has more on offer than Jennings.

The standouts of the cast are Barry James as charming as should be for Grandpa Joe, Vincent Finch really playing into the silliness of his role as August Gloop, and Amy Carter as the most terrifying version of Veruca Salt ever to be portrayed. The one true miscast of the children lies fault in the adaptation itself, as Violet Beauregarde has been urbanized in a very racial fashion for this production.  Obviously I don’t believe it’s necessary to cast all white children in the roles, but I do believe that if casting racially, the music should not be altered to stereotype these casting choices.  Violet has been rewritten as a Beyoncé satire with an overbearing showbiz father exploiting her every diva-like move.  Fine to use this concept satirically, but to musically compose badly written and clichéd Motown inspired songs to convey it, feels outdated and offensive.  Surely just casting one of the children racially different is a better way to promote diversity than to completely rewrite a character to fit a racially profiled stereotype.

The true star of the West End adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the ridiculously extravagant and mind-blowing stagecraft.  The set design is stunning and innovative.  The buildings and backdrops steal the show right from under the lacklustre musical numbers.  During the intermission between acts, my colleague and I could not help but gush over the lines, angles and spatial use of all of the sets and props.  We’re not even visual people, but could not help but notice the superior design.  As impressed as we already were, we certainly did not expect the second half to push boundaries even further with more, grander sets, cleverly choreographed Oompa Loompas, and special effects that have never before been seen off screen.  The stagecraft of West End’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rivals pure imagination itself.

With average music and performances, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still strongly delivers magical wonderment through its spectacular visuals and choreography, which must be seen to be believed.

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