First night: Sam Mendes' Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a skilful confection, but leaves you wanting more

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Who, in their right mind, would choose to be an Oompa-Loompa - part of what is effectively a sweet-toothed slave-labour force? Still, they are full of vim, ingeniously created (a hectic hybrid of human and puppet), and, in one number, they roller-skate about like crazy and thus can be included in the more successful aspects of this much-anticipated stage musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Sam Mendes' big-budget production has opened after a whole month of previews and in the daunting wake of Matilda, that other Dahl-derived musical that is still riding high in the West End and on Broadway. Comparisons, invidious and otherwise, are inevitable. 

In some ways, you could argue that the makers of Matilda had it easier. The story of the pint-sized prodigy's battle with her repellent parents and sadistic headmistress has the kind of dynamic emotional conflict that people of all ages can identify with. 

By contrast, Charlie begins and ends as the soul of unselfish sweetness and light. His family are so docile in their destitution that they make the Cratchits of A Christmas Carol look like hardened Communists. And there's never any doubt that Charlie will pass Willy Wonka's test or that the Golden Ticket-holding brats will eliminate themselves through their greed and sense of entitlement.

This musical version is certainly blessed in its leading performers. As the enigmatic chocolatier, the brilliant Douglas Hodge is more school of Gene Wilder (from the 1971 film) than of Johnny Depp who seemed to be channelling Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and Anna Wintour in his freaky portrayal for Tim Burton in 2005. 

Leaving everyone guessing about his sanity, Hodge's Wonka is a wonderfully unstable cross between a visionary with a screw loose and a Prospero-like figure with a serious game-plan and a yearning to retire. He delivers a master-class in comic timing as he tosses off complicated patter-songs with a quiet, almost insolently negligent ease and takes the little horrors on a continually wrong-footing tour of his factory's wacky marvels. 

These are evoked here via the technical wizardry of whooshing computer graphics, hydraulic lifts and a Mark Thompson set on which the chocolate waterfall resembles a heavily sweating Curly Wurly bar. You won't be disappointed with how they achieve the grisly come-uppance of the poisonous poppets. 

It's in the nature of the story, though, that Wonka makes a dramatically delayed entry.  This means that, for the first half of Mendes' production, we are largely marooned in the Dickensian shack of the Bucket family with its quartet of bed-ridden Beckettian grandparents. 

At the performance I saw, Jack Costello's adorable portrayal of Charlie suffused the proceedings with a lovely sense of the boy's pining purity. But the best bits of this rather static stretch are our initial glimpses of the brats.

Wittily updated, they appear in a giant TV that's like a stage-within-a-stage. The bubble-gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde has been reconceived as a Britain's Got Talent-style rapper replete with grovelling entourage; Mike Teavee is a computer-games maniac etc.

The score by the Hairspray combo of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is tuneful and wholly unmemorable (the only song you come out humming is “Pure Imagination” the captivating Newley/Bricusse number borrowed from the 1971 film). But it rises to a nicely mischievous wit with the yodelling Germanic Gloop family and with Iris Roberts's hilarious Mrs Teavee, a delectable throwback to the suburban 1950s, who sings that “Medication set us free/One pill for Mike and two for me”.

Peter Darling's choreography offers an attractive mix of East End knees-up and synchronised Oompa-Loompa antics but the glorious finale with Charlie now kitted out as a mini-Wonka who mirrors his mentor's zazzy, off-centre motions makes you wish there were more of it. Very engaging but rarely elating, this show is a skillful confection that doesn't quite produce the inspired sugar-rush of magic that's required.      

Booking to May 31 2014; 0844 871 8810

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living