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 to 31 May 2014; ‘If Only’ ( to 27 July


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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015