Fans of Roald Dahl’s story are usually confined into 3 camps; the book, the OG movie starring Gene Wilder and the Johnny Depp remake. For many, there is no cross over, you are in only one gang but this current tour will challenge that thinking as it melds the best elements of all 3 into a hugely entertaining show.
Casting for Charlie has meant the production needing 4 options – lets face it, Charlie is an ever present throughout the whole show, a big ask for seasoned adult actors let alone for younger mind & bodies. For our show we were treated to the pocket dynamo Jessie-Lou Harvie, complete with long plaits and the most infectious south Scottish accent (which in itself was a delight that there had been no attempts to flatten or even coach out her natural brogue).
The story remains true to the book/movies; down on her luck Charlie, living with her mum and 4 elderly grandparents in a small, rundown shack, makes useful items out of other people’s rubbish, all the while dreaming of something better. The news that the famous Willy Wonker, owner and secretive chocolate entrepreneur, intends to invite 5 lucky winners to a tour of his factory just feeds her dreams even more, despite the fact that their lack of funds means they can afford but 1 chocolate bar per year.
As each golden ticket is found, and we are treated to an insight into the brattish, spoilt and selfish lives of the ‘lucky’ winners, Charlie’s hopes of being one of the 5 fade, until lady luck smiles and along with Grandpa Joe, head off to the gates of the factory.
Our first introduction to Willy Wonker is very different to that of Gene Wilder; Wilder insisted on playing Wonker in an understated, subdued and as such, unpredictable way – his ‘madness’ presented itself in an eccentric manner, unnerving but not entirely threatening. Gareth Snook’s Wonker is far more in your face; think BGT Wagner crossed with Frank ‘n’ Furter (without the stockings). His opening number is brash, bold and big on wordplay, sadly much of which is lost as it is impossible to hear it all with the volume so loud.
Regularly breaking the 4th wall, Snook makes no attempt to hide his distaste for the ill-disciplined children, almost taking relish in their demise while pushing the remining group through the various inventing rooms (which remain true to the originals, albeit using some fantastically clever projections to portray rivers of chocolate, edible landscapes and the many levels of the factory). He regularly brings a sense of Lewis Carrol’s Mad Hatter to the fore with some wickedly clever throwaway comments that takes you half a beat to realise what was said.
Of course, you can not review Charlie & the Chocolate Factory without mentioning the Oompa Loompa’s – Wilder had a full group of little people, Depp had a CGI multiplied Deep Roy and there’s Wonka origin movie on its way using Hugh Grant (of all people). For this show we have the ensemble, dressed and acting like some benevolent cybermen; very futuristic looking rather than a lost indigenous race. Their dance routines are fun and provide the necessary ‘tidy up’ of unrulily children to much amusement of everyone.
The ending, and in particular the lead up to Wonker initially refusing to honour his offer of “a lifetime of chocolate” to the last remaining child, felt rushed and somewhat out of sync; for simply asking to look at a book, Charlie is roundly dismissed by Wonker and it is only after she has presented her own ideas that he relents and exalts that she has indeed won.
Of the full house there were many young children in the audience who all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show. I think it will be those of us who hold dear to previous versions (and in particular the Gene Wilder classic) who may find this current production a little jarring on the memories.