Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (King's Theatre Glasgow)
A lip-smackingly superb musical adaptation
Whenever there is discussion about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptations there is only one name on anybody’s lips – and it’s not Charlie. Perhaps that is not surprising, since Willy Wonka has become such an iconic character, especially through Gene Wilder’s portrayal, that the meek Charlie cannot help but be overshadowed. Roald Dahl famously hated Wilder’s performance and the lack of emphasis placed on the titular character, which led him to disown the 1971 film. But even as the two main characters struggle for attention the real star of the film is being overlooked: the world, both inside the factory and out. With the Timothée Chalamet-starring prequel still on everyone’s mind, this musical adaptation of Dahl’s beloved children’s book is touring the UK, giving audiences yet another opportunity to decide how this Wonka, played by Gareth Snook, stacks up to the rest.
But before they can pass judgment, we meet Charlie. Several young actors will be performing in the role, and in Glasgow the role is played by Jessie-Lou Harvie. As you watch her perform the opening song “Almost Nearly Perfect” you realise three things simultaneously. Firstly, Charlie is a completely perfect character to gender-swap. The excited whispers of “Charlie’s a girl!” rippling through the audience warm your heart, and there is nothing either in the plot or in the character that would be complicated by portraying her as a girl. This is actually the second thing you realise: no other production tells us much about Charlie at all. They have always been defined by what they don’t have, rather than what they do. Here, Charlie is inventive, optimistic, loving and thoughtful. Watching her find hidden treasures to give to her bedridden grandparents not only makes us care about her but also portrays her as a worthy heir to the chocolate factory. Finally, you realise just how incredible an actor Harvie is. She belts out her numbers and delivers her lines with the confidence and talent that would be impressive in someone three times her age. It says a lot when you can declare a Chocolate Factory adaptation as a success before Wonka has even set foot on stage.
Photo Credit: Johann-Persson
Something that is frequently brought up about the eccentric chocolatier is that he needs to possess a bit of darkness. Making magical sweeties is all well and good, but this is a character who practically relishes putting children in peril. Well, when Snook does take the stage it is clear his Wonka is far from sickly sweet. He is still whimsical, joyous, and imaginative, but with the psychotic edge of a man who has not spoken to anyone for many years. He manages to be troubling, endearing, and hilarious all at the same time as he skips around Augustus Gloop’s chocolate-covered body while twirling a large clever. Some parents and sentimentalists might find his take on the character a little sour, but Snook’s performance is confident and well-considered when placed next to the delight that is Charlie.
The rest of the cast hold their own, with the standout being Robin Simões Da Silva as Augustus. Despite being the first child to get the chop he gives the most memorable performance of the bunch, snacking and yodelling his way right into the audience’s hearts. Teddy Hinde has good physical comedy as Mike TeeVee but struggles to enunciate, meaning that Wonka’s jokes about him not speaking clearly ironically fall flat. But most importantly every performance, from the stars to the ensemble, fits into the wonderful world being created. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s music and lyrics, Simon Higlett’s design, and James Brining’s direction all come together to make a performance that feels thoroughly realised. Sometimes that means toying with aspects of the original to fit the times, most notably turning the Oompa Loompas into robots. It keeps all the humorous aspects of the original concept and dispenses with the uncomfortable colonial implications, exhibiting a type of bravery I wish was more common in adaptations.
And yet this Chocolate Factory doesn’t ignore those that came before it but works in some of their best bits, for example, “Pure Imagination” and “The Candy Man” are right at home next to Shaiman and Wittman’s original numbers. I questioned how a scene like Veruca’s number, in which she is branded a “bad nut” and carried off by squirrels, could be pulled off on stage. To my surprise, the solution of having someone in a squirrel costume atop a cage-like tower was as effective as it was goofy. But you can’t have scenes like that without others taking a backseat, and here it is the Chocolate Room. This introduction to the factory, which is meant to be blooming with mint-flavoured grass, strawberry cream toadstools, and toffee apple trees, is basically just a colourful projection and a few measly sweets in the children’s hands. It comes as a disappointment after the visual splendour of the first half, but for what was done with the rest of the budget it is a worthy sacrifice.
Ultimately this isn’t just a show about Willy Wonka, this isn’t just a show about Charlie, and this isn’t just a show about the world Dahl created. It is about all three of them in harmony. It is easy to be cynical about the state of big musicals, which can feel far too reliant on existing properties and nostalgia. Even if that is still true of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical, it sets a bar that the others don’t. Not just this musical, but this specific production, is a shining example of how to adapt well-loved properties and still make it feel original and noteworthy. Five stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: "Amazing! My favourite song was the one at the beginning of the second act, I can't remember it's name"
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has completed its run in Glasgow