More than 20 years after his death, Roald Dahl has never been so popular, with the West End’s Matilda The Musical breaking records and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory setting up chocolatey-camp down the road with equally entertaining results.
Sam Mendes’ slick and visually spectacular take on the classic retains all of Dahl’s deliciously dark, wickedly witty elements and adds a colourful sprinkling of West End magic and subtle 21st century updates. While Charlie Bucket and his mostly bedridden family inhabit a dilapidated shack, that seems like it has been lifted straight from Dahl’s iconic illustrator Quentin Blake’s imagination, his golden ticket friends are not quite so Dickensian.
In Mendes and playwright David Greig’s hands, the aggressive Mike Teavee is transformed into a video game addict who exists in a fluorescent strobe-lit world, causing his Stepford-wife mother to turn to shots of ‘mummy water’ and pharmaceuticals. The gluttonous Augustus Gloop is an obese Bavarian beefcake with a penchant for sausages, while Violet Beauregarde is a rap star called the Double Bubble Duchess, whose ability to chew has brought her not only fame but her own perfume range, a rather unattractive sense of entitlement and an entourage with dollar bills in their eyes.
Of course, the queen of entitlement remains the wonderfully spoilt Veruca Salt whose David Dickinson-esque father exhaustingly pampers as she pirouettes and pouts, before disappearing swiftly when she finds herself in her very own surreal version of The Nutcracker, with man-sized squirrels in place of the traditional mouse army. In contrast, Charlie is a delight, although while we may fall in love with his unassuming, polite, gracious ways, he’s equally as likeable for the mischievous twinkle in his eye and his love of daydreaming about liquorice shoestrings and marzipan molars.
From edible gardens to chocolate waterfalls, human mirrorballs, a room full of intuitive squirrels and a spinning wheel of ingredients producing wacky and wonderful confectionery from your wildest dreams, Mendes’ show is packed with inventive surprises and magical wonders delivered on Mark Thompson’s techicoloured set. At the heart of this magic is, of course, Willy Wonka, played with a devilish edge by the accomplished Douglas Hodge, who reinvents the iconic role for himself, playing the slightly psychotic character as a born entertainer with a sarcastic wit and sentimental heart.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s sassy lyrics match Greig’s witty script and, while the one song you inevitably come away singing is the classic Pure Imagination, their endlessly inventive score keeps every scene fresh, ranging from electro pop for Mike’s technology-induced demise to 70s pop for Violet’s waist-popping explosion and sweet musical theatre classics for Bucket’s poverty stricken family who find fun and love in every situation.
But what of those famous Oompa-Loompas? To say too much would give away some of the show’s most hilarious moments, but it’s fair to divulge that Mendes has shied away from anything high-tech, instead employing old-fashioned manpower, black leotards and a series of clever tactics, from platformed roller-skates to cardboard boxes, to produce the famously short statured helpers who in this production chuckle away with joy and fill the looming factory with intriguing shadows.
With standout performances from the hugely talented child cast, scrumptious design, a book that fully embraces Dahl’s wicked sense of humour and a heartwarming conclusion that will send you into the night on a high from the vivid world you have just experienced, Mendes’ production will take you on an irresistible adventure. As Charlie says, you may have had dreams that are incredible, but this one is edible.