Friday, 17 January 2014

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Theatre Royal Drury Lane - Tuesday 14th January 2014

A poor but virtuous boy, Charlie lives in a tiny house with his parents and all four of his grandparents. His grandparents share the only bed in the house, located in the only bedroom. Once a year, on his birthday, Charlie gets one bar of Wonka chocolate, which he savours over many months.
Mr. Willy Wonka, the eccentric owner of the greatest chocolate factory in the world, has decided to open the doors of his factory to five lucky children and their parents. In order to choose who will enter the factory, Mr. Wonka devises a plan to hide five golden tickets beneath the wrappers of his famous chocolate bars. The search for the five golden tickets is fast and furious. Augustus Gloop, a whose only hobby is eating, unwraps the first ticket, for which his town throws him a parade. Veruca Salt, an insufferable brat, receives the next ticket from her father, who had employed his entire factory of peanut shellers to unwrap chocolate bars until they found a ticket. Violet Beauregarde discovers the third ticket while taking a break from setting a world record in gum chewing. The fourth ticket goes to Mike Teavee, who  cares only about television.
a tremendous stroke of luck befalls Charlie when he spots a cob buried in the snow. He decides to use a little of the money to buy himself some chocolate before turning the rest over to his mother. After eating his first bar of chocolate, Charlie decides to buy just one more and within the wrapping finds the fifth golden ticket. He is not a moment too soon: the next day is the date Mr. Wonka has set for his guests to enter the factory.
Charlie’s oldest and most beloved grandparent, Grandpa Joe, springs out of bed for the first time in decades and the pair go off to the factory.
 Augustus Gloop falls into the hot chocolate river while attempting to drink it and is sucked up by one of the many pipes. Violet Beauregarde steals  a stick of experimental chewing gum and turns into a giant blueberry.  Veruca Salt demands one of Mr Wonka’s nut sorting squirrels to take home but is attacked by them and thrown down a rubbish chute.   Mike Teevea disobeys instructions and is miniaturised. Only Charlie remains and Willy Wonka congratulates him for winning. The entire day has been another contest, the prize for which is the entire chocolate factory, which Charlie has just won.
Willy Wonka – Douglas Hodge
Charlie (at this performance) – Troy Tipple
Grandpa Joe – Nigel Planer
Grandma Josephine – Roni Page
Grandpa George – Billy Boyle
Grandma Georgina – Myra Sands
Mr. Bucket – Jack Shalloo
Mrs. Bucket – Alex Clathworthy
Mrs Gloop – Jasna Iver
Mr Salt – Clive Carter
Mr. Beauregarde – Paul Medford
Mrs. Teavee – Iris Roberts

Creative Team:
Director – Sam Mendes
Choreographer – Peter Darling
Sets and Costumes – Mark Thompson
Music and Lyrics – Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Script - David Greig


Imagine – an expensive, beautifully wrapped chocolate bar.  The packaging oozes quality and hints at the delights beneath.  This is none of your Dairy Milk rubbish, struggling to reach 10% cocoa solids and laden with sugar.  This is Drury Lane, the latest invention from the Wonka Chocolate Factory.  It subtly promises to make you happy, to entertain you royally (for this is, indeed, a singing and dancing chocolate bar). Expensive, but oh – so worth it.   It whispers that it is a talisman against the cold, the dark and the rain, as well as that miserable feeling of emptiness that has been nagging you.  Come, it says, peel away the wrapper and run your hands over the foil, which clings seductively to the delights beneath, hinting at the solidity of the pleasures to come, the lingering sweetness melting across the surface of your tongue, come and taste.  You know that not only chocolate lies beneath the foil, for this is indeed a very special bar of Drury Lane.  Hidden under that crinkly, crackly foil there is a sheet of pure gold , hammered as thin as the promise on a politician’s lips.  A sheet of pure gold that provides the means of entrance to a world of enchantment.  A Golden Ticket.  Slowly you pull aside the foil……

 and what lies beneath is merely a bar of workaday chocolate.  There is no golden ticket.  No treasure.  No prize.  Nothing.  And, now you look at it, even the chocolate seems less rich and dark than you expected.  Its pale, almost sweaty in consistency, and there is no comforting snap as it breaks, merely a slightly flabby dampness.  You’ve been (as they say in the trade) well and truly had.  Welcome, my friend, welcome to Drury Lane

Just like the chocolate bar, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory promises a lot on the wrapper.  There is a list of quality ingredients – Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, Nigel Planer as Grandpa Joe.  Sam Mendez (one of the big shots) is directing.  There will be technology and theatrical magic blended with a story written by one of the most beloved and enduring of children’s authors.  A chance to watch the images that were once inside your head pass before your very eyes.  A chance to relive your childhood. A chance to share that childhood with your children.  “Act One” might almost be printed on the wrapper, and it’s a pleasurable enough experience taking the wrapper off.  At the finale when that wrapper is gone, the foil underneath is printed with the words “Act Two” and promises even more – the interval comes right at the most exciting moment possible as the doors to Willy Wonka’s wonderful factory swing open and we are invited inside by the trickster, the charlatan, the madman, the inventor – Mr. Willy Wonka himself, decked out in clothes with the colour and shine of Quality Street wrappers (the pale green triangular one and the big purple one shaped like a brazil nut, in case you ask). The curtain falls and we are left literally on the edge of our seats – hurrah, after the interval we are going inside!  The magic is about to begin! We start to peel off the foil that is Act Two – and find just an ordinary chocolate bar underneath.  The anticipated magic isn’t there.  Its just a chocolate bar – and not a very good chocolate bar either.  And there’s no Golden Ticket either.  All the money seems to have been spent on the outer wrapper and the list of ingredients.  All the excitement and promise that built up during Act One and the interval goes ppppppppppppppttttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… and you come back to earth with the kind of bump experienced after drinking Fizzy Lifting Lemonade. 

Largely this disappointment is due to the paucity of the musical numbers.  There is nothing remarkable, nothing really memorable, nothing you can leave the theatre humming – except, of course, one musical number patched into the recipe right at the last minute.  In a dazzling show of laziness, Shaiman and Whittmany throw “Pure Imagination” at you – the song sung in the 1971 film by Gene Wilder as WW.  Its almost as if the writers have either been too lazy to come up with something decent or have tacitly admitted defeat at the final fence -  given the lack of a good tune to send you out humming, they’ve thought “Everyone knows and loves this song – lets give them that”.  Particularly poor are the numbers which open Act One (“Almost Nearly Perfect” – is this a nod to “Practically Perfect in Every Way” from Mary Poppins?) and Act Two (the instantly forgettable “Simply Second Nature”).  The other musical numbers are wildly diverse in style to the point of incomprehensibility – from the rap of “The Double Bubble Duchess” via the yearning ballad of “If Your Mother Were Here” to  the techno of “Vidiots”.  All the big ensemble numbers are clicktracked – recorded beforehand and mimed to.  This is a real rip-off when this happens – its just a way of fooling the punters.  Nobody on stage is actually singing.  What is truly amazing is that Really Useful Group have actuall had the audacity to release a YouTube video (see below) showing the recording sessions actually in progress.  “Hey look everyone!  We’re fooling you and are arrogant enough to show you how you’re being fooled!”.  The libretto isn’t that great either – there is little of Dahl’s witty wordplay, and what does exist is gabbled or muttered in a way that suggests the cast (particularly Hodge) are embarrassed at how bad it is. 

And what makes it all the more frustrating is that the first half is really good, full of slightly hokey charm, nicely paced and with the promise of even better things ahead.  The roles of Grandpa George, Grandma Georgina and Grandma Josephine are expanded so that each develops their own personality (one thing you don’t actually get in the book, where Grandpa Joe is the only one of the four to take on a real character).  Mrs. Bucket – Alex Clatworthy; last seen in the notorious Kiss Me, Kate at the Guildhall School – is turned into a living, breathing person and is well supported by the role of Mr. Bucket (another almost invisible role in the book).  There are some genuinely funny moments (most of which involve Augustus Gloop) and some genuinely moving ones (both me and Him Indoors thought, during the interval, that these were leading to handkerchiefs being required at the end of Act Two – but the emotional twist we both anticipated never came).  The story is updated gently and appropriately (in the book, Charlie is able to buy two chocolate bars with 50p he finds in the snow and the family read of the discovery of the Golden Tickets in old newspapers; here Charlie finds a discarded £1 note and they watch the announcements on television) to make it more “relevant” to today’s children and this is done sympathetically to retain the tales’ original charm  (although this is inconsistently done; Violet Beauregarde is a mini-rapper, Mike Teavee an Atari addict.  There is a strange attempt at making it “transatlantic” – both TV anchors are unmistakably working for an American news channel.  Are the producers looking for a Broadway transfer?).  There is so much promise in that first act – its not perfect, but with a bit of tweaking and some better musical numbers, it could be really good – but all that promise simply fades away in the second half.    The costumes are inventive, the Oompah Loompahs are portrayed in a variety of clever ways, the sets are impressive – but the music is dire, the dialogue thin, and the emotional promise of Act One is never realised.  The flight of the Great Glass Elevator, which could be a great coup de theatre in the manner of Mary Poppins sailing up through the auditorium, is a bit of a damp squib.  I expected the Elevator to go sailing up and out across the audience (how fantastic would that be?), but it simply rises up about 8 feet, moves about the stage a bit and then plonks back down, while we are treated to the song made famous by Gene Wilder. 

There are a couple of notable performances.  Troy Tipple (great name that!) was perfect as Charlie, even though he has an Oop North Accent while his stage parents remain resolutely Home Counties.  I’m no great fan of Nigel Planer but he was an excellent Grandpa Joe.  Iris Roberts gives a pitch-perfect performance of the manic Mrs. Teavee, and Jasna Iver as Mrs. Gloop just takes over the entire stage whenever she appears. Jenson Steele is a perfect Augustus Gloop, and Alex Clatworthy a warm and believable Mrs. Bucket.  Douglas Hodge’s performance as Willy Wonka does leave rather a lot to be desired – he mutters a lot, gabbles a lot, elides over the occasional word and often appears physically uncomfortable when dealing with his badly written dialogue.  Give the man a better script and better music and he would probably bring the house down. There is a strange “framing device” where Wonka appears at beginning and end as a tramp, and I could see little point for this.  It adds nothing to the story and is just superfluous and odd.   Neither of the children playing Violet Beauregarde or Mike Teavee (I couldn’t work out from the programme exactly which child sharing the roles were playing this performance) had intelligible diction, but granted that neither were helped by the speed of their musical numbers.  The dialogue written for the role of Mike Teavee is dire, and that for Violet Beauregarde not much better.  Tia Noakes played Veruca Salt with a seemingly permanent gurn that simply made me want to slap the child, and in a fashion that recalled the puppet version of Fergie in Spitting Image. 

I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so let down by a theatrical performance.  It promised so much, looked initially as if it were going to hit every single one of its marks and then singularly failed to deliver.  It is, after all, just an ordinary bar of chocolate in very fancy and expensive wrapping.  

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