With chocolate waterfalls, oompa-loompas, glass elevators, riverboat rides, nut-seeking squirrels and television lasers, the sheer logistics of bringing Roald Dahl’s confectionary-celebration to life could be enough derail any production. Yet it’s the one thing that this new stage musical gets indisputably right.
The huge scale of the sets in this Sam Mendes produced extravaganza are something to behold, and the frequency at which Wonka and his child guests move from edible meadows to chocolate rivers to gum laboratories is quite astonishing. Complete with dancing oompa-loompas – animated by fully-grown dancers – the scale and ingenuity frequently dazzles. The cast move so swiftly from one set-piece to the next, it’s hard enough to keep up while sitting and watching, lord knows what it must be like to be back-stage.
What a shame then that all this excitement is jam-packed into the second half. The whole first half sees proceedings stuck at the Bucket family’s junk yard shack. Excepting interruptions from the TV, which brings the other ticket winners into their home, we remain there exclusively, listening to songs that highlight their pitiable poverty but love for each other.
Yes, the songs are not great. They’re not bad, it’s just that they’re entirely lacking in memorable hooks. The performers are able to bring energy and life to them – especially the ludicrously talented youngsters – yet one can’t help but be reminded of certain songs made famous by another chocolate factory production…
The well-known Gene Wilder vehicle is like an elephant in the room; when Charlie finally gets his ticket, you can’t help but think “I’ve got a golden ticket…" Alas, the writers seem to anticipate this, and bring you right back to that dowdy junkyard house and dishevelled family for a much drippier song. It’s no surprise that the most memorable tune in the whole production is the one that’s in the movie – and they leave it right till the end too (it’s Pure Imagination if you hadn’t guessed).
Flawed though it is, it is carried with a great deal of enthusiasm, and the kick from first gear to fifth in the second half certainly keeps it lively. There are no big star names (you can easily believe they blew the budget on the sets), though reliable Nigel Planer is there as Grandpa Joe. Douglas Hodge plays a more softly whimsical take on the legendary chocolatier, less hysterical than Wilder, less peculiar than Depp. He has a more gentle demeanour, with elegant gestures, swift lyrical patter and, crucially, just a touch of spite around the edges.
It’s just a shame it doesn’t add up to much. The ending feels rather tacked on after the whirlwind of changing back-drops. Like the disappointing Burton/Depp version, it loses the story in amongst the set-pieces, reducing Charlie and Joe to spectators who win the big prize by staying out of trouble. This, alas, is no West End classic. Dazzling, but falling short of greatness.