Children’s stories don’t come much sweeter than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so it’s little wonder that it eventually made its way to the stage. Expectations for the 2013 West End production were higher than the Great Glass Elevator and while reviews were as mixed as a bag of Licorice Allsorts, it entertained Drury Lane audiences for almost four years before heading across the chocolate pond (where a significantly reworked version fared less well on Broadway). Willy Wonka has recently opened up the UK factory doors again, with a tasty new touring production directed by James Brining and designed by Simon Higlett. You can currently catch it at New Wimbledon Theatre.
If you enjoyed the original London production then you will probably like this version too, as it’s fundamentally the same show but with a few tweaks and a different aesthetic. If you didn’t like the West End production, it’s unlikely that this one will do much for you either although there are some clear improvements. If you never saw the previous production, it’s definitely worth a watch, with the caveat that it predominantly features new songs rather than those you might be expecting as a fan of the film. (If you disliked the West End production for this reason there is a little good news on that front – assuming you’re thinking of the Gene Wilder film rather than the Johnny Depp version).
It’s still very much a show of two halves (or, to use a more appropriate analogy, perhaps think of it like a theatrical Swizzel’s Double Dip). The first Act focuses on the hunt for the five elusive golden tickets, with Willy Wonka’s long-awaited arrival taking place just before the interval. Gareth Snook is entertaining enough as Wonka but his performance doesn’t feel quite as mysterious or sinister as it could.
While Act 1 still feels a little long, some of the pacing problems are alleviated by losing the character of Mr Bucket entirely. Thankfully, the dreary and confusing song “If Your Mother Was Here” goes with him. Another especially welcome change is the inclusion of “The Candy Man”, sung by Mrs Bucket (Leonie Spilsbury) here and later reprised in Act 2. The production makes better use of reprise than its predecessor, getting decent mileage out of the small number of genuinely good tunes (the best of which are inherited from the film). This is a wise tactic because much of what goes in between them is uninspiring and forgettable, although an honourable mention must go to “Don’cha Pinch Me, Charlie” for breaking the (chocolate) mould.
The introductory songs given to Charlie’s four bratty contemporaries remain disappointing, with Teddy Hinde as Mike Teevee getting the worst of a bad bunch with the tuneless “The Teevee Family”. Casting adults as every child apart from Charlie doesn’t particularly help, as it was slightly easier to overlook the weak songs when they were being performed by cute children. On which note, Jessie-Lou Harvie was excellent in the title role on Friday evening. This is another positive development in this production, with the role of Charlie open to both boys and girls.
The action picks up a bit in Act 2, when the factory doors open and the tour begins. At this stage, Simon Higlett’s physical set largely gives way to video projections (designed by Simon Wainwright). While they are colourful and fun, the video elements do make Act 2 feel a little less theatrical in places, but they are a very economical way of creating a big impact in a touring production. There is also some nice use of illusions here (designed by Chris Fisher), although they are missing the wow factor of the West End production.
The Oompa Loompas sport a futuristic new look which gives the musical some much-needed darkness while clearly removing any trace of the racist stereotype upon which the characters were originally based. There is a nice nod to the familiar Oompa Loompa song from the film when they make their first entrance. “Pure Imagination” is also much better integrated into this version of the show, taking its rightful place at the opening of the factory tour instead of being tacked onto the end (although it does get a predictable reprise).
Overall, it’s an enjoyable production of a musical that is still let down by its score despite extensive reworks. A Roald Dahl classic mixed with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the duo behind such hits as Hairspray and Smash) should be a recipe for mouth–watering musical theatre, but it would be bland without the sprinkling of magic provided by the classic Lesley Bricusse and Anthony Newley songs.
Where the production does truly succeed is in its commitment to equality and diversity, with gender-blind casting of the lead role and a cast that includes transgender, non-binary and deaf representation. Leonie Spilsbury is a standout performer in her two very different roles as Mrs Bucket and Mrs Teevee. As the former, she incorporates sign language into her performance, providing valuable and authentic representation for the deaf community in every show, not just the occasional BSL-interpreted performances. Want to change the world? This is how you do it.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory plays at New Wimbledon Theatre from 21 June to 1 July 2023. We received a complimentary ticket to the performance on 23 June.