Mendes turns Dahl's 'Charlie' into a lavish feast of a musical
Chocs away! At last, Britain gets to see the much touted stage musical based on Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although there's been much talk of the technical challenges involved in adapting it to the stage, the real difficulty lies in preserving the story's humanity amid a welter of special effects.
Of course, this glitzy production will have to battle for universal applause with an earlier production of the author's Matilda, Gene Wilder's whimsical Willy Wonka in the 1971 film and Johnny Depp's turn in 2005 - not to mention the audience's memories of the book.
But acquiring the rights was a two-decade personal quest by director Sam Mendes. "I spent 25 years trying to get the rights for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to do on stage," the 47-year-old said at the play's recent London premiere.
The success of his production lies in its reminder that, for all the razzle-dazzle of Mark Thompson's sets and costumes, Dahl's story is essentially a fable with a moral.
David Greig's script goes to pains to keep the narrative clear while shrewdly tweaking the original. It also builds up the character of Charlie's Grandpa Joe (played by the angularly funny Nigel Planer), who here is a bed-bound Billy Liar. Even Willy Wonka, the eccentric capitalist who seeks to monopolise the world's chocolate supply, is given a darker tone than in the book.
The show also depends on delayed gratification. Most of the first half is taken up with the story of Charlie's impoverished family, relieved by inserts of a garish TV spectacle showing the winners of the golden tickets. The only problem is that Marc Shaiman's score never achieves lift-off until Charlie himself becomes the lucky fifth recipient.
In what seems like a concession to the global market, the four other children on the tour are of mixed nationalities: the greedy Augustus Gloop is Bavarian; the spoilt Veruca Salt, defiantly English; the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, Californian; and the computer game-obsessed Mike Teavee, a product of American suburbia.
It doesn't matter much except that the lyrics, co-written by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, initially get swallowed up in the parody of national musical styles.
But once we reach the factory, the show never looks back. In creating a sumptuous visual feast, Thompson's achievement is to adopt a number of different devices while creating a harmonious whole. The caverns of the Wonka factory are evoked through projections (by Jon Driscoll) that have the dark intricacy of drawings by the 18th century Italian artist Piranesi.
Each chamber also has its distinctive character. The Chocolate Room, where Augustus gets his comeuppance, seems like Klingsor's magic castle in Wagner's Parsifal. In the Nut Room, we are confronted by puppet-squirrels beavering away. And the diminutive Oompa-Loompas are evoked through a trick which is highly effective.
What stops the show being overwhelmed by spectacle are the performances: above all, Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka. Kitted out in plum-coloured tailcoat, bottle-green trousers and black top hat - exactly as Dahl prescribes -Hodge has the great gift of being engaging and sinister at the same time.
He also puts across the show's best number, Pure Imagination, with a sincerity that conceals its paradoxical nature in a production that pre-empts our own fantasies.
Yet Hodge's Wonka - calmly watching four of the children get their just deserts (or perhaps be turned into desserts) and fiercely rounding on Grandpa Joe when accused of offering Charlie a "measly" reward - shows a dangerous edge. Hodge gloriously reminds us that inside the beneficent Wonka lurks a testy authoritarian.
Jack Costello, one of the four children playing Charlie, displayed a sprightly assurance. It's also worth praising Alex Clatworthy and Jack Shalloo, who lend Charlie's parents a genuine protective kindness.
All this is testament to Mendes' skill in masterminding a lavish bonanza without letting us forget that Dahl's book is a morality play in which vice is punished and virtue gets its edible reward.
Guardian News & Media