Alex Jennings replaces Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka from May 19 2014.
‘Skyfall’ director Sam Mendes’s huge new Warner Brothers musical confirms it: the hottest property in the West End right now is a grouchy, dead half-Norwegian, who loathed show-offs and spent most of his working life hiding out in a shed at the bottom of his garden.
Roald Dahl probably wouldn’t have liked the whiz-popping rave that Mendes has created from his addictive kids’ book ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – because he felt it was Charlie’s story, and any adaptation inevitably becomes the Willy Wonka show. But what a show this is: a deliciously twisted anti-talent contest in which young Charlie finds a golden ticket and enters the factory of mysterious confectioner, Wonka, to battle four revoltingly spoiled brats for a lifetime’s supply of chocolate.
Thanks to David Greig’s wicked script and preposterously talented child leads, Charlie’s rivals are updated brilliantly for our look-at-me generation: gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde now comes complete with rap and entourage. But, unlike the RSC kid-focused hit ‘Matilda’, our young hero fades into the background and it’s a relief when all the scenes showing what a nice lad he is are out of the way.
Designer Mark Thompson has raised the bar on what kind of world it's possible to create on a stage, given colossal ingenuity (and a multimillion pound budget). And real fun starts when the giant gates of Wonka’s factory open, revealing gadgets, candy-bright edible landscapes and imminent danger of death by chocolate.
In a masterstroke, Mendes has turned the book’s biggest problem into the show’s biggest stars. The Oompa Loompas are Wonka’s indentured army of midget labourers, who basically torture irksome children through the medium of confectionery then make a song and dance about it. Here they are the maddest, oddest, most euphoric chorus I’ve ever seen. With the help of furry two-in-one kigus and mini-me puppets, the full-sized actors become frantic homunculi, tapdancing, cantering round on the backs of squirrels and cavorting like clubbers on a 72-hour bender.
As Wonka, Douglas Hodge – a surprisingly straight choice – channels Rex Harrison as the charismatic conductor for their nutty orchestra, popping up everywhere from the pit to the posh seats.
The point of Dahl’s story is that the show-offs come to sticky ends, which are staged spectacularly. But Wonka’s the biggest boaster of the lot, and, unlike Tim Burton’s film, we don’t get a backstory to make sense of him.
The other ‘meh’ is the music. ‘Hairspray’ team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have written sugar-rush genre pastiches, that give an instant high. But ‘Pure Imagination’ – the one song lifted from the 1971 film – is the only melody that hangs around in your head, like a strange ghost from a different time.
Mendes’s show just fails to reach the core of Dahl's everlasting gobstopper of a story. But this is a bumper box of a family entertainment, with a golden wrapper and plenty of whipple-scrumptious surprises.