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