Exactly two years on from its original West End premiere, whose previews were beset by technical difficulties with a glass elevator that frequently failed to levitate and was still a bit wobbly even on the opening night, the stage version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now a slick, well-oiled machine. It is a justifiably popular addition to the West End roster of family spectacles, and has claimed to have broken the West End record for the highest reported weekly gross sales.
Although there are no problems with the elevator. the show itself still takes a while to take off in other senses. It’s very much a show of two halves, with a lot of quite dry scene-setting as our young, poor hero dreams of winning one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets to visit his chocolate factory; since we all know he is going to, there’s barely any jeopardy or tension in the first act, just a lot of padding.
It is also significant that it isn’t until an hour in that Willy Wonka himself makes a proper appearance just before the Act I curtain. Then as he leads the winners of their fabled (and frequently fatal) visit to his factory, the show explodes in a burst of colour and macabre wit as it provides an alternately terrific and terrifying tale of the results of an over-developed sense of entitlement among some children.
Some of those watching it may recognise themselves or their kids. And there’s certainly something seductive about the compellingly strange ringmaster that is Willy Wonka, since it has become a part which has attracted the attentions of three of our finest and most skilled and versatile modern Shakespearean actors in turn. After Douglas Hodge and then Alex Jennings, it is now RSC regular Jonathan Slinger who lends him an insinuating grace and humour, a resonant singing voice, but a faintly sinister mysteriousness.
It’s a performance that turns a slightly old-fashioned show, whose score draws extensively on Lionel Bart and a kind of cod English music hall sounding score, from something ordinary to extraordinary. The rest of the cast don’t match him for definition — there’s more caricature than character for the most part – although inevitably the young actor playing Charlie also threatens to steal the show.