“Beyond this door, surprises in store”
Third time lucky for me and the great glass elevator! The first time I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the climactic lift effect wasn’t ready, the second time it broke down before it even really started so if nothing else, it was great to finally get to see the sequence as it was intended. My main reason for revisiting the show though was the cast change, with favourites like Josefina Gabrielle and Richard Dempsey joining the company and Alex Jennings stepping into the role of Willy Wonka, replacing Douglas Hodge.
And rather unexpectedly, I absolutely loved it. It was a show I had previously liked rather than truly enjoyed but it really seems to have settled into its skin now, subtle alterations helping with the pace (although I am sad to see the animated prologue having been removed) and a generally sharper feel to the whole proceeding. For me though, the best aspect was Jennings’ reinterpretation of Wonka, a completely new take on the character that works brilliantly and feeds into the fabric of David Greig’s book, based on Roald Dahl’s writings of course, in a more instinctive and convincing manner.
Jennings imbues Wonka with a thoroughly English sense of eccentricity, toning down the malevolence that Hodge seemed to revel in for more of an absent-minded, carefree attitude that works better. He still has abrasive edges but there’s a core warmth there that makes for a much stronger and more affecting central relationship with good old Charlie Bucket (played by Oliver Finnegan tonight). There’s more of a frailty there too which makes perfect sense given the way the story unfolds towards the end, retirement feels like a genuine option throughout rather than a plot device.
Coming back to a show, particularly one that might carry large preconceived notions given the popularity of the source material, also gives one the opportunity to really appreciate it for what it is. It is different to the film(s) and the book, it possesses its own special brand of magic (special mention to Jamie Harrison’s illusions) and musically, it is stronger than Marc Shaiman’s score is usually given credit for. His tunes insinuate their way into the mind rather than bash you over the head and there’s a sweetness, especially in the first half, that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Gabrielle shines as Mrs Teavee, one of the better defined supporting roles, and Barry James is a twinkling delight as Grandpa Joe. Indeed it is hard to pick out any real weaknesses, for me it is a hugely enjoyable show. And it was interesting to see the reactions of the children around us (probably aged 6-10) who started off restless but were slowly drawn into the action and were watching in rapt silence by the end. Definitely worth the trip (or the revisit), if only to see Jennings at the top of his game