After months of hype, Sam Mendes’ trumpeted return to the West End is finally open to the public. Tackling a much-loved children’s literary classic, fully ingrained in popular culture (it’s already been the subject of two big screen adaptations) must have been a challenging proposition for the Skyfall director. Unsurprisingly, he pulls it off with genuine aplomb, and like the great Wonka’s otherworldly display of confectionery delights, there’s more than enough here to entice, astonish and enchant those of all ages.
As to be expected from a Mendes production, this is a slick-looking affair. The integration of art direction and visual content is superb, and an intro extolling the beauty of chocolate is credited to one Quentin Blake – a nice nod to the Roald Dahl legacy. While the production sticks largely to the book, there are some obvious contemporary changes worked in, although that subversive Dahl edge is still intact.
Mendes’ ingenuous device of introducing the Golden Ticket winners (their initial reveal offers one of the play’s genuinely awe-inspiring moments) is arguably the most entertaining part. Violet Beauregard is reinvented as an entourage-heavy, Miley Cyrus-like teen sensation from The Hills, while Mike Teavee is a truly frightening creation, ripped from the ADD, Xbox generation. The character of Augustus Gloop remains untouched, presumably become the sight of a highly gluttonous, schnitzel-devouring moppet is timeless.
Theatre veteran Douglas Hodge’s take on Willy Wonka is more akin to Gene Wilder’s version than Jonny Depp’s glassy-eyed weirdo. Perhaps owing to the setting, there’s much more physicality in the character than those previous incarnations, but Hodge succeeds in delivering this whilst playing up to the foppish quirks and mannerisms. His contempt for the kids this time around is much more obvious, which makes for some hilarious moments. Newcomer Jack Costello, who plays the central role of Charlie Bucket, is preternaturally talented, exuding a confident on stage and craftsmanship which betray his young age. Nigel Planer is also great fun as Grampa Joe, forever embellishing the escapades of his younger self’s many trips around the world (Mendes crafts a lovely sequence around one such tall tale).
The first half offers such unadulterated, giddy joy that the factory tour occasionally struggles to reach the same heady heights of what has come before. The Oompa Loompas are brought vividly to life on stage using an antiquated theatrical trick that works marvellously, due to the outstanding chorography (step forward Peter Darling, who bought the theatrical version of Billy Elliot and Matilda to life) and the skilled, full-sized, performers. The various musical numbers within the walls of Wonka’s factory are all imaginatively handed, pulling in an array of diverse visual references, from the glitter and campy glamour of disco, through to a faux-futuristic, Kraftwerk, Tron-esque tone.
Frustratingly, the productions only hiccup stems from some of the musical numbers. Marc Shaiman’s songs (in collaboration with creative and real-life partner Scott Wittman) are full of that caustic humour reminiscent of his work on the likes of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, but they are largely forgettable. Ironically, the only song which really brings out the goose bumps is Pure Imagination, written for the 1971 film adaptation.
It’s to Mendes’ credit that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory succeeds as a hugely enjoyable experience despite this. The director brings thing together at a breathless pace without sacrificing nuance and character, and that balance of sentiment and malevolence is just right. Its early days yet to say whether this Wonka will prove to be the definitive take on the material, but it’s a helluva fun ride, which should draw in the crowds for many months to come.