Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

Theatre review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Never judge a sweetie by its wrapper

Sam Mendes’s lavish Roald Dahl adaptation takes far too long to get to the tasty filling

Would Roald Dahl have been such a big deal without his illustrator Quentin Blake? The question nagged silently during years of reading aloud stories often clumsy, even cruel. And here is Blake again, raising the curtain on the much-hyped musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with an animated take on the Creation, the cacao bean taking the place of the Word. But Blake’s heart-warming images which have for decades lent charm to this graceless author, preface a show that ultimately disappoints.

Charlie Bucket is our little hero, salvaging bits and bobs from the tip for his bedridden grandparents  and penniless parents – the underused Alex Clatworthy and Jack Shalloo. Their sweet-natured “If Your Mother Was Here” stands out from Marc Shaiman’s otherwise unmemorable score, most songs having more style than substance, with words hard to decipher.

The doting family’s seedy hovel is robustly realised in Mark Thompson’s full-throttle design, and the bike-powered TV, on which the Buckets watch breaking news, is jolly. But the overly long set-up for the sweetie-works adventure becomes wearing (my eight-year-old companion observed at the interval that it was already an hour past her bedtime). Heavy-handed jokes depicting the elders as incontinent, sex-starved cripples can certainly go.

Finding one of five golden tickets in a chocolate bar will release Charlie’s family from penury, securing a trip to the Wonka works. Cue amusing musical pastiches with spirited performances from other ticket-finding youngsters: bloated Bavarian Augustus Gloop, indulged balletomane Veruca Salt, streetwise Californian Violet Beauregarde, and whey-faced bullet Mike Teavee.

When lucky Charlie joins them, maverick chocolatier Willy Wonka – a mercurial Douglas Hodge – leads his visitors to operatic trials: can Augustus resist an edible landscape, or grasping Veruca the cutsie squirrels? David Greig’s adaptation doesn’t dally with redemption – children who go wrong come to a sticky end.

Director Sam Mendes piles every-thing into this lucky dip – puppetry, ballet burlesque, dizzying back projections, panto-style antics from the runty Oompah-Loompah factory hands, a thing that looks like a green Tardis … but there is not much to like, apart from the first-night performance of smashing little Jack Costello as one of the production’s four Charlies, and the shock ending is plain bizarre. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an eye-catching offer, but has more wrapping than filling. With its Quality Street spectacle and technical wizardry, it throws a fortune at saying money isn’t everything.

There’s no waste in If Only, David Edgar’s giddy ride on the waltzer that is coalition government. Like the best jokes, it starts with stereotypes: a cheese-and-pickle Tory, a chorizo New Labour man and a vegetarian Lib Dem are stranded under the Icelandic ash cloud that stopped millions of flights in the run up to the 2010 general election. Thrown together on a road trip, trading one-liners, they come clean about their parties’ tactics, as the first televised leaders’ debate kicks Nick Clegg up the snakes-and-ladders board.

Between Spain and the Channel they switch positions, try on each other’s political clothing, are put to the test by a first-time voter, and bind themselves in a secrecy pact that only career suicide can break. From the Labour-insider game “Where were you between 2007 and 2010?” (Winning answer, “Anything but ‘I worked for Gordon Brown’”), to the Tory manifesto (“Why does it look like a hymn book?”), this is knockabout politics at its funniest.

Fast forward to August 2014, and another election is in sight. In secret, in a Belgian church, like the conspirators in a modern Murder in the Cathedral, the three politicos review the Tory leadership – and their pact.

Brilliantly crafted, deftly designed by Ruth Sutcliffe, impeccably cast and wittily directed by Angus Jackson, If Only is clever enough to make us giggle at a chunk of political history that was painful at the time, while usefully positing a likely outcome of the coalition’s current trajectory. And that is no laughing matter. Catch this, petition for more performances, and insist that every Liberal Democrat see it. David Edgar could save the country yet.

‘Charlie ...’ (charlieandthechocolate factory.com) to 31 May 2014; ‘If Only’ (cft.org.uk) to 27 July

CRITIC'S CHOICE

Starring Patricia Hodge on fine form and to the manor born, Trevor Nunn’s revival of Noël Coward’s comedy Relative Values is on tour at Brighton’s Theatre Royal (tomorrow to Sat). In London, Ciarán Hinds is superb as a middle-aged chancer on the skids in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, at the Donmar Warehouse (to 27 July).

NEXT WEEK Kate Bassett sees the biggest show yet from Punchdrunk

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits