Fun-filled family musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a thoroughly enjoyable rendering of Roald Dahl’s fantastical morality tale.
Generations of children have been delighted by the vivid 1964 novel, the classic 1971 film starring Gene Wilder and the darker 2005 movie with Johnny Depp. Adoring audiences have been dazzled by stage adaptations in the West End and on Broadway. Now, regional theatregoers have the golden opportunity to experience a new touring production.
Yes, Mr Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas are, at last, opening the factory’s gates in venues nationwide. Milton Keynes Theatre is the first stop, with performances continuing until Sunday 5 March, and ticketholders are relishing indulging in this sweet and nutty experience.
Memorable characters dance betwixt and between reality and expectations. Uplifting themes, quirky creations and unfortunate incidents are realised in ways beyond our imaginations. Amazing alliterative announcements, absurd assertions and astonishing antics amuse all ages. This show really must be seen to be believed!
The first act focuses on the troubles of the poor but loving Bucket family, which are offset by hyperactive news reports from around the world as each winning Wonka bar is unwrapped. Director James Brining maintains a reasonable pace (no time to dally when wonders await) without sacrificing touching moments and light-hearted digressions. This ensures that the characters and their quirky qualities are not swallowed up by the frenzy that surrounds the crazed consumption of confectionery.
Charlie Bucket says “how d’ya do” while tunefully searching for “almost nearly perfect” discarded items at the rubbish dump. It swiftly becomes apparent that we are in the presence of an innovative and industrious individual. Charlie, whose colourful patchwork outfit cheers up the grey landscape, recognises that things thrown away as trash have the potential to be repurposed as treasure and takes them home to the Bucket family’s boxy, tatty house.
This resourceful, compassionate child (two boys and two girls are alternating in the role) embodies hope and optimism. Noah Walton, press night performer on this occasion, is choc-full of charming confidence. His singing is bright and clear. He is particularly endearing when interacting with Charlie’s bed-bound grandparents and doting mum.
Michael D’Cruze is effortlessly mischievous as Grandpa Joe. Exuberant Joe has a twinkle in his eye, a lively logic on his lips and a marshmallow-soft spot for his only grandchild in his almost ninety-and-a-half-year-old heart. And Leonie Spilsbury serves up unexpected treats as Mrs Bucket, who appears to be a single mum. She affectionately communicates with her family using sign language and spoken dialogue simultaneously. She daintily dances through domestic duties. She sings – and signs – soothing snippets of ‘The Candy Man’.
Charlie is the only golden-ticket-toting minor played by a child actor. The other four winners, who all meet their sticky ends in the factory, are portrayed by young adults. There’s greedy bratwurst-eating champion Augustus Gloop (Robin Simões Da Silva), pampered prima-donna-ballerina Veruca Salt (Kazmin Borrer), gum-chewing queen of pop Violet Beauregarde (Marisha Morgan) and screen-addicted teenage tearaway Mike Teavee (Teddy Hinde). This casting decision reinforces the obvious: Charlie is nothing like these spoiled brats.
The second act takes place inside the factory. Here, wacky Willy Wonka quips “I’m not what I expected either”, before showing the sweet-toothed kids and their gobsmacked guardians that anything is possible. Gareth Snook is engaging and sinister as the eccentric confectioner – he slinks and saunters around the factory with mercurial bravado, which keeps the magic alive. This is crucial as, immediately following the interval, the stage is sparsely adorned. There is no sign of the outrageous eye candy you might expect.
Fortunately, once a never-ending levitating contract is signed, the power of our shared imagination combines with kaleidoscopic video projections to gradually conjure up all sorts of delights under the lights. Everyone marvels as incredible edibles appear and disappear. A blueberry flavoured bubble bounces before it bursts. Giant squirrels make an appearance. Channel hopping proves to be literal locomotion. It’s laugh-out-loud, joyful escapism.
The Oompa Loompas are an otherworldly troupe of silver automatons. Their slick synchronicity and clean execution of Emily Jane Boyle’s brilliant choreography results in the perfect blend of creepy comedy. As each child receives their just des[s]erts, the Oompa Loompas storm onto the stage to showcase moves that deliciously (albeit mechanically) develop dance styles that were associated with the golden ticket winners in Act One. Imagine: cheeky hops, skips and jumps; gallops and swivels; cheerleading spirit; street swagger. They even don tutus for their robotic ballet routine.
Familiar songs from the 1971 film feature alongside character-driven numbers. These might not be the most memorable tunes, but the live orchestra delivers the desired sugar rush in the moment.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may well defy explanation. Essentially, you are guaranteed a sweet treat, with a wholesome message, that will send you home a little changed and enormously entertained. Add this show to your musicals [Charlie] bucket list!
Running time: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, including one interval.
*Production photography by Johan Persson.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.