After all that ill-advised hype, here is the West End’s new biggie, another Roald Dahl musical hoping to emulate the brilliant Matilda.
So how sweet on the ear is Charlie? Is it toothsome? Do we melt?
Not I. The first half is as slow as cold treacle and most of the songs – which include an ironic techno-beat number – are duds.
During Monday night’s interval, Drury Lane’s corridors filled with parents trying to put a brave face on things, telling their little ones ‘isn’t it unusual?’ Unusually dull, perhaps. Crestfallen faces gazed up at Mummy and Daddy, perplexed.
On the positive side we can enter clever special effects (a good gag with a shrunken child) and a much better second half. There is a solid central performance from Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka – he looks a little like fashion designer John Galliano – and the set designs of Wonka’s chocolate factory are colourful and plainly expensive. But a really good musical gives you a sugar rush of emotional involvement. You care about the characters. That is absent.
Dahl’s celebrated story, adapted for stage by David Greig, starts all Tiny Timmish with the tale of poverty-stricken Charlie Bucket, whose dad has lost his job. Charlie’s four grandparents, so indolent that they have forgotten how to walk, have obviously not heard of Iain Duncan Smith’s British work ethic.
The only grandparent of note is Grandpa Joe (Nigel Planer) who uses his last 53p to buy Charlie a Wonka chocolate bar. Will it contain one of the precious gold wrappers which will secure a trip to the Wonka factory and a chance to win a lifetime’s supply of sweets?
This early crisis, the best part in the first half, almost manages to tug the tear ducts. That was the only time I felt an attachment to the little fellow (played efficiently by Jack Costello).
The insuperable weakness of Sam Mendes’ production is that we do not enter Willy Wonka’s factory until the second half. It is a good hour or so before Mr Hodge makes his entrance. Madness.
Apart from the finale and a duet with Charlie’s parents, Marc Shaiman’s songs flop and Scott Wittman’s lyrics may or may not be witty. The furry sound quality and patchy enunciation made it hard to tell.
They have thrown a lot of money at the thing. Charlie’s horrid rivals duly receive their comeuppances, with fattipuff Augustus Gloop being sucked down an impressive factory tube – ‘he’s not an impurity, he’s my little boy!’ wails Jasna Ivir’s Frau Gloop.
A troupe of jockeyed squirrels dance Veruca Salt off to the nut-cruncher.
The Oompa-Loompas are played not by dwarves, alas, but by disguised, full-size actors. Boring.
Oh dear. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about a story which, at its core, has a fine moral that goodness ‘must be believed to be seen’. This show should have followed that admirable philosophy and devoted more effort to heart and artistry instead of technical high jinks and pre-launch publicity.