Ahh, the mouthwatering promise of a much-hyped brand-new family-friendly musical. Arriving humming Food, Glorious Food, or Electricity, or even When I Grow Up in anticipation of the goodies to come. That delicious feeling you’re about to witness a new song-and-dance spectacle; get a taster of a beautiful new song; feel breathless satisfaction at some daring new choreography.
But we didn’t. Sam Mendes’ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contains a lot of promise: great characters, a touch of magic, and at its core, a fun morality tale. But in the hands of Hairspray songwriters Shaiman and Wittman, none of the musical numbers achieve those mysterious yet enchanting heights that make hit musicals so special. And Peter Darling’s choreography, so admired in Billy Elliot and Matilda, looks like he’s phoned it in.
In some ways, Charlie is scuppered by its own structure: the over-long first half is dedicated to ensuring we all understand how poor-but-happy the Bucket family are, finally giving way to the pre-interval razzmatazz of the arrival of Willy Wonka. What follows is a rinse-and-repeat exercise of travelling around the factory; wizardly new room; bad behaviour by new brat; comeuppance chorus from the Oompa Loompas.
Thank goodness, then, for Douglas Hodge. A dazzling showman, Hodge’s perfectly ambiguous Wonka soars the spectrum from clever circus ringmaster to faux-naive magician, from sugary inventor to bitter recluse. He gets his teeth around the uninspiring patter songs, and finally achieves a little musical magic in the only memorable number of the night, Pure Imagination, tellingly by other writers (Bricusse and Newley).
And, of course, you can’t keep a good Dahl stereotype down. David Greig’s witty book adds extra topping to his source material: the ever-memorable Augustus Gloop is now a bratwurst-munching Bavarian; Violet Beauregarde, a Cribs-dwelling Californian mini-diva; Mike Teavee’s terrified suburban mom (an excellent Iris Roberts) attempts to keep her ADHD child in check, singing “Medication set us free/One pill for Mike and two for me”.
There’s plenty of Dahlesque whizz-bang effects too. From high-tech projections to clever costumes and witty Loompa puppetry, there’s no doubting this is a lavish production. It’s a shame that in all the technical wizardry, the heart of the story is somewhat lost. Despite our reservations, we're sure it'll be packed with punters for many, many months. But for us, Sam Mendes’ big-budget Charlie is a bit like eating the chocolate it praises: sweetly mundane at first, followed by an amazingly colourful sugar-high, but ultimately leaving you hungry for something more substantial.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Catherine Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5JF until May 2014. Tickets range from £25-£67.50. Visit charlieandthechocolatefactory.com to find out more. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.