Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel is a much loved fable where vices like greed, vanity, and pride are punished while virtue is rewarded in the tale of Charlie Bucket, a boy of impossible purity, who never does a bad thing.

The story of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory has been filmed twice, first in the classic 1972 version starring Gene Wilder, and then in 2005 with Johnny Depp.  Both were successful,  but perhaps the earlier version has the edge because of its Bricusse-Newley score.

A song from that score, ‘Pure Imagination’, appears in this new stage musical (although its creators only get a tiny footnote in the programme), and sits awkwardly alongside new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, which verge on the forgettable (except for ‘Vidiots’, ‘Don’t Ya Pinch Me, Charlie’ and ‘Strike That! Reverse It!’).

As Wonka, Alex Jennings is no singer but clearly relishes the mix of camp and cruelty in the character,  as he springs and sashays around in pink jacket, green trousers and top hat, looking rather like Dr Seuss’ cat.

A dance sequence from Charlie’s grandparents in a stretched-out act one reminded me of the inventors in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, while a creepy sweet seller is reminiscent of the Childcatcher of the same production.   I missed the ‘Candyman’ of the earlier version.

As for the children,  young Scot Rhys Lambert’s accent occasionally distracts, but he carries his solo songs well.  The other lucky golden ticket winners each have a showpiece set within the Bucket family’s ancient TV, and with Violet now a reality star rapper, Mike a sociopathic gamer, and Veruca an awful dancer (as Wonka waspishly remarks later, ‘her posture’s awful’), there’s been a bit of updating.

The Oompa Loompas are fun, with good puppet work,  the second half has snippets of technical brilliance (the glass elevator, the squirrels, the bits of magic), but perhaps the high point is Charlie’s flying paper plane.  Grandpa Joe (Barry James) is very good,  and there’s a couple of cleverly creepy appearances from Wonka before we join him in his factory.

Fun, fresh, but ultimately soulless and lacking emotional involvement, this production is too long at two and a half hours, and parts are better than the whole, but it remains enjoyable.

My thanks to
for providing the tickets.