Charlie & The Chocolate Factory wasn’t my favourite Roald Dahl book growing up; I much preferred The Twits and The Witches. Having said that, I have read it and seen both versions of the movie numerous times which I enjoyed immensely; the book and original film are part of very fond memories from my childhood.
But like most things of great sentimental/childhood value, there is always a fear that in the process of adaptation to a new format something will be lost, changed or just fucked up – the world you have created in your imagination is placed in the hands and control of someone else. For example, I deliberately haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter films because if someone fucks with my version of Hogwarts well then I will just lose my shit.
The 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder was vastly different to the 2005 Tim Burton version, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp. Same story, completely different feel and lots of criticism from people who grew up with the original – ‘Why remake it anyway!? The original is still amazing!’
So when Sam Mendes (of American Beauty and Skyfall fame) took on the role of director of the stage version – Charlie & The Chocolate Factory: The New Musical – for London’s West End he had a big task ahead of him. He had to deliver a lot: a version that stood up to the book and both films, staging stunts never before attempted, production design never before attempted and a spectacular that would drive word of mouth and pack out the Theatre Royal night after night (investors pumped a lot of cash into this thing and they want their cold hard cash money!)
Well…. He delivered.
The set and production design are mind blowing. The best I’ve seen this year (and I’ve see a lot of musicals this year!) The rapid transitions between scenes are seamless and when you consider the size of each major set piece, pulling of this staging is somewhat of a technical miracle; really adding to the magic of watching the story play out in a theatre.
In bringing the classic story to the stage, Mendes has definitely taken a steer from Tim Burton’s version – for example, forget the geese and their Golden Eggs, it’s all about the squirrels and their nuts. His Willy Wonka, played by Douglas Hodge, has taken a few cues from Johnny Depp and (apart from the stage itself) is the obvious star of the show delivering a lot of LOLz with flickers of the darkness that torments Wonka.
The children who win the Golden Tickets have been given a similar modern day makeover which actually makes them more annoying and so when they meet their fate it’s extra rewarding to watch. Mike Teevee is a little shit and is the reason I never want to have children.
Even though the kids are super annoying, the Oompa-Loompas make up for them and add a lot of comedy to the show. The choreography and puppetry used to create them is seriously cool and another staging miracle which takes the entire show up a notch.
Musically, the vast majority of songs are new. Some are excellent, the others are a bit ‘meh’ (yes, that is actually a technical term) and sung so fast that you can’t actually understand the lyrics. There’s a fantastic version of ‘Pure Imagination’ towards the end which – for fans of the original film – will serve as a reasonable creative balance between the old and the new.
In sum: whether you hated Tim Burton’s version or not, Sam Mendes’ Charlie & The Chocolate Factory: The New Musical has all the ingredients of a great West End show and definitely has longevity so if you’re planning a trip to London in the next couple of years you should totes book tickets. They’re expensive but worth it!