When Sam Mendes' musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in June last year critical reaction was mixed, with almost universal praise for the elaborate and highly technical staging but a more lukewarm reception for the show in general. And yet the internet buzzes with effusive, glowing praise from theatre goers.
So what is the truth? For me, it lies somewhere between the tepid enthusiasm of the critics and the gushing adoration of theatre goers. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a remarkable production in some ways, but in others merely good.
This should not be read as a backhanded swipe at the production, either – to be 'good' by West End standards is to be world-class, after all. It's just a shame that the show is plagued by small imperfections when the ensemble is such a brilliant, captivating experience.
Charlie is probably the only stage show where adults are just as likely to ask "How' did they do that?" as the children. Even after company manager Richard Clayton had shown me around backstage and let me in on some of the production's secrets, there were still effects and illusions so wonderfully carried off that I was left scratching my head as to how exactly they were arranged.
As each scene began I asked myself "I wonder how they'll do the chocolate river/the squirrels/the glass elevator" and in each case the solution was impressive and ingenious.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Troy Tipple made for a refreshingly un-stagey Charlie Bucket, and he was ably supported by a seasoned cast of adults, including a very bright turn from Nigel Planer as Grandpa Joe.
Douglas Hodge has the difficult task of following in the memorable footsteps of Gene Wilder and then Johnny Depp, but he succeeds in making the part his own. His Wonka is less of a gentle soul than in previous adaptations, emphasising instead the sharpness and black humour of Dahl's original creation (as well as his amusing indifference to the fate of Charlie's unlucky rivals).
And for my money, the Oompa-Loompas have one of the toughest jobs on the West End (you can read more about their demanding role here), and every scene in which they appear is a triumph both of staging and of performance. More than anything else, they truly bring the Wonka factory to life.
The issues with Charlie, then, definitely do not stem either from the staging or from the sweet and sharp performances of the cast. The main weakness is in the score, which has two problems. The first is pace: some numbers are perfectly fine from a purely musical perspective, but their placement drags down the show and drains it of all its built-up energy.
For instance we are forced to sit through a forgettable ballad ('Simply Second Nature') right in the middle of the chocolate river scene, interrupting such an exciting, wonderous moment that the audience can't help but wish the song were over with so we could get back to exploring Wonka's magical world.The other problem with the musical numbers is that some of them are simply unintelligible. The young actress playing Violet Beauregard was spirited and expressive, yet neither I nor my companion were able to make out a single word she sang, due to the ultra-fast rap style of the songs and their overpowering orchestration. The same can be said of Mike Teavee's numbers. In neither case do the songs do justice to the talentsof the young actors, but a few tweaks in the score could solve this easily.
It must be said, however, that there are several outstanding songs in the score besides the welcome borrowing of Pure Imagination from the 1971 movie version. 'Don't Ya Pinch Me, Charlie' is a suitably joyous number, and the musical introductions of Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt are absolutely superb – probably the show's best sequences.
It is moments of musical triumph like these alongside consistently breathtaking feats of staging that make Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sweet treat for seasoned theatre goers as well as children.
See what I learnt when I went behind the scenes after the curtain went down.