Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, book by David Greig, music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Leeds Playhouse in association with Neal Street Productions & Playful Productions
Sunderland Empire

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Gareth Snook as Willy Wonka and winners Credit: Johan Persson
Willy Wonka travelling Credit: Johan Persson
Leonie Spilsbury as Mrs Bucket Credit: Johan Persson

This production, based on the classic book by Roald Dahl, was adapted by the Scottish playwright David Grieg. Following a successful West End run from 2013 to 2017, it took to the road this year. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps the most popular of his darkly comic novels written for young people and tells the story of a destitute young child who wins a golden ticket to tour the mysterious and magical chocolate factory of Willy Wonka.

I précis the story as those who do not know it may have some difficulty in following it, as my companion and others said. The first half is a fairly ‘grey’, realistic set, well designed (Simon Higlett) with a central scrapheap opening to reveal other locations, like the shack where Charlie Bucket (Jessie-Lou Harvie) lives with her family and the ‘corner’ shop. The set is extremely well lit (Tim Mitchell) adding to the intimacy of the home.

Based on this iconic story, the production follows the hit West End and Broadway productions in combining memorable songs from the original 1971 motion picture, "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination", with new numbers from the songwriters of Hairspray, which do not quite live up to the original songs. The cast are strong overall, Michael D’Cruze as Grandpa Joe has a delightful relationship with hid granddaughter, Gareth Snook as Willy Wonka is larger than life, more than living up to his character and outrageous costume (Higlett).The costumes are colourful throughout, constantly changing.

Dahl’s books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide and published in 63 languages. Called "one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century", he is a perennial favourite allowing readers to explore their imaginations. Willy Wonka (Gareth Snook) sings “There is no world like I know to compare to imagination”, which is central to the story; unfortunately, the sound is so loud, the words are difficult to follow.

Born in Wales, Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964, frequently ranked among the most popular children’s literature. It was originally inspired by his experience of chocolate companies; during his schooldays, Cadbury would often send test packages to the schoolchildren in exchange for their opinions on the new products. At that time (around the 1920s), Cadbury and Rowntree's were England's two largest chocolate makers and they each often tried to steal trade secrets, by sending spies posing as employees, into the other's factory. It was a combination of this secrecy and the elaborate, often gigantic machines in the factory that inspired Dahl to write the story—imagination!

While beautifully acted, well-staged and choreographed (Emily Jane Boyle), it is very ’sharp’, losing some of the excitement of the book. This is a musical in two halves, the first setting the scene and characters realistically and the second half exploding into a video (Simon Wainwright) and illusion (Chris Fisher) extravaganza. The stage is literally awash with plants, fireworks, chocolate and a plethora of other items too numerous to mention, spreading across the entire stage.

Whilst we live in an age of technology, I feel something of the traditional excitement of live theatre is lost when the most astounding part of a production is a large screen dominating the stage and its technological execution. As the modern, young generation are growing up, with this it will not disturb them like a more ‘traditionalist’. As the packed theatre had many youngsters in, this did not seem to hinder their enjoyment.

The national tour ends on 4 February at The Kings in Glasgow

Reviewer: Anna Ambelez

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