Today’s news that Alex Jennings is to take over from Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in May is intriguing on several levels.
Of course Alex is no stranger to musicals – indeed, it was on the same Drury Lane stage that he won an Olivier Award for taking over as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady from Jonathan Pryce in Trevor Nunn’s production that had transferred from the National. And in 2008, he played Voltaire and Doctor Pangloss in the ENO’s version of Candide at the London Coliseum, in Robert Carsen’s staging that was co-produced with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and Milan’s La Scala.
So his credentials are not in any way in doubt. He’s presumably simply the best man for the job in director Sam Mendes’s eyes, just as Douglas Hodge, who originated the role, was before him.
But though Alex is a brilliant actor whose status as one of the leading company men of both the National and the RSC is unassailable, he’s hardly a West End ‘name’ (whatever that means), at least in the sense of having the sort of public recognition that actually sells tickets. Nor, really, is Doug Hodge.
What Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though, affords them is a dazzling star turn that they can make their own – and even if the public won’t necessarily buy a ticket to see either of them in it, I can’t wait to see what Alex makes of it.
Last year, he transferred to the Duchess just across the street in the Alan Bennett miniatures Untold Stories, playing the playwright to perfection in all his low-key, sardonic charm; the Duchess is one of London’s smallest theatres, and Drury Lane is one of its biggest. But Jennings is one of our tribe of working actors who simply goes where the best work is.
And so, of course, is Hodge. And one of the things I love about them both is their supreme versatility. Intriguingly, both have played Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (Jennings for the National, Hodge for the RSC). But they’ve also swapped with equal dexterity between new and classical theatre, plays and musicals.
Hodge has been a leading exponent of Pinter and has starred as Pericles at the National and Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe. He’s also starred as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and, of course, his Olivier and Tony winning performance as Albin in the Menier’s La Cage Aux Folles that went onto the West End and Broadway.
Meanwhile, Jennings has played Peer Gynt, Richard II and Hamlet for the RSC, and starred in new plays by Alan Bennett and many others at the National.
No wonder our actors are amongst the most sought-after in the world, too. But the great relief (for us in the theatre, at least, if not necessarily their own bank balances) is that though both have worked in TV and film, neither have been lost to Hollywood. Let’s keep them at home and on our stages – and give them opportunities and decent pay cheques to do so.