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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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Over a year into its run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now plays, at least technically, like a well-oiled machine. But as it lurches dramatically from one gorgeously designed set-piece to another, a fundamental lack of dramatic tension or theatrical cohesion remains in its schematic, formulaic exposition.

A first act that introduces the winning kids in every sense of Willy Wonka’s competition to visit his bizarre confectionary factory, staffed entirely by slave labour whether of the Oompa-Loompa dwarf variety or working squirrels, is followed by a second act that despatches them again in ever-more gruesome ways. There is an unmistakeably dark hue to Roald Dahl’s storytelling, but this is constantly undermined in the staging by the joviality of the score and the technicolor cartoon brightness of the sumptuous design.

The musical writing is tuneful, literate and polished, though it’s not always possible to make out the lyrics. The most memorable song, however, is borrowed from the original 1971 film version, Pure Imagination. The production too often borrows the music hall atmosphere of Oliver!, another show that Sam Mendes has directed and was last revived on this same stage by Rupert Goold, with a few modern diversions like a terrible rap number thrown in.

But a vast cast, newly led by Alex Jennings as Willy Wonka, give it steady flow of diverting energy. Jennings, who was last seen in the West End playing Alan Bennett across the street at the Duchess, at times resembles Joel Grey channelling Bennett. He brings interestingly sinister edges to the character, though his true motivations are never explained. The adorable Scottish-accented Rhys Lambert played Charlie at the performance reviewed with a feisty charm. Others among the adult company mostly only have caricatures to deal with, but Clive Carter, Josefina Gabrielle and Myra Sands convey an infectious good fun as they do so.

Mark Shenton

  • Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
  • June 25, booking until May 30, PN: June 25
  • Authors: David Greig book, Marc Shaiman music, lyrics, Scott Wittman lyrics, based on the novel by Roald Dahl
  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Choreographer: Peter Darling
  • Music: Nicholas Skilbeck musical supervisor, Nigel Lilley musical director, Doug Besterman orchestrations, Marc Shaiman arrangements, Phij Adams music technology
  • Design: Mark Thompson sets, costumes, Paul Pyant lighting, Paul Arditti sound, Jon Driscoll video/projections, Jamie Harrison puppets/illusions
  • Technical: Richard Clayton company manager, Chris Hesketh production stage manager, Patrick Molony production manager, Poppy Hall costume supervisor, Nicky Leach head of wardrobe, Campbell Young Associates hair, wigs and make-up, Tony Roban head of hair and make-up, Pippa Ailion casting, Jessica Ronane children’s casting, Nick Salmon and Nia Janis for Playful Productions general management
  • Cast includes: Alex Jennings, Barry James, Clive Carter, Josefina Gabrielle, Jasna Ivir, Paul J Medford, Billy Boyle, Richard Dempsey, Kirsty Malpass, Roni Page, Myra Sands
  • Producers: Warner Bros Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions, Neal Street Productions, executive producers Raymond Wu, Mark Kaufman, Kevin McCormick, Caro Newling
  • Running time: 2hrs 30mins

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The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.