Review: Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Milton Keynes Theatre

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

Milton Keynes Theatre

10th February 2023

“Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” is one of those titles that everyone knows and steeped in nostalgia and bringing back countless memories of both the 1964 Roald Dahl novel and its 1971 film adaptation (although perhaps less so of the Johnny Depp remake).  Dahl’s deceptively simple story of a good-natured child winning a glimpse inside a fantastical chocolate factory run by an eccentric inventor was a staple of so many of our childhoods, although its translation to stage hasn’t been without its bumps.  A three and a half year West End run was met with a mixed reception, as was its reworked Broadway production, but the musical is back on UK stages to try and work its chocolatey magic once again.

Charlie Bucket (played at the Press performance by Noah Walton, who shares the role with three other young performers) lives a simple life with his doting family, and despite fighting through poverty, does his best to see the good and joy in the small things.  On hearing of a competition to win one of five Golden Tickets to gain entry to the mysterious Wonka chocolate factory, every child in the world does their best to find one, and Charlie resigns himself to the idea that his chances of winning are next to zero.  As the tickets are found across the world, hope seems lost until fortune smiles on young Charlie, and he joins Augustus Gloop (Robin Simoes Da Silva), Veruca Salt (Kazmin Borrer), Violet Beauregarde (Marisha Morgan) and Mike Teavee (Teddy Hinde) at the gates of the legendary chocolate kingdom.  As its doors open, its elusive owner Willy Wonka emerges (Gareth Snook), and the children and their parents soon realise this tour is going to be unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

As a piece of theatre and a stage spectacle, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” is hugely inventive and technically dazzling.  Director James Brining successfully translates the sense of wonder and beguilement from Dahl’s source material thanks to David Greig’s book, retaining just the right hint of sly darkness, and makes the show a delight to watch.  The set and costume design (Simon Higlett) work brilliantly and give the production an almost cinematic feel. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design helps to bring the fantastical element to life even further.  Video design (Simon Wainright) is mostly effective, occasionally looking a little naff at times, but it effectively conveys the scope of the journey our characters are taking, and key moments of the story are delivered well.

Where “Charlie” falters is in its capacity as a musical.  Its score and lyrics come from the talented minds of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who created “Hairspray”, “Catch Me If You Can”, and the “Bombshell” musical from the TV series “Smash”.  This team know their way around unforgettable songs, but sadly that isn’t in evidence here.  Much of the score of “Charlie” is underwhelming, with the songs never really taking off or staying in your brain.  The show has seen various rewrites across its production history, with songs being replaced and moved around, and it feels like it still hasn’t got it quite right.  Some of it does work (“Don’cha Pinch Me Charlie”, “It Must Be Believed To Be Seen”, “Strike That Reverse It”), but all of the songs for the ticket-winning children feel like they should be stronger.  By the time Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s timeless “Pure Imagination” appears, it outshines everything that Shaiman & Wittman have delivered in the rest of the show, and makes it all feel a little under-baked.

Fortunately, a strong cast help to deliver the material well enough to compensate for the shortcomings in the score.  Unsurprisingly, Gareth Snook steals the show as Wonka. He wisely chooses not to mimic Gene Wilder’s masterful film performance and instead makes Willy Wonka his own.  He’s a somewhat louder and more aggressive version of the character, giving him a livewire quality and a delicious glint in his eye which really works.  Micheal D’Cruze is also delightful as the endearing Grandpa Joe, seemingly never stopping smiling and revelling in his “Don’cha Pinch Me Charlie” solo number.  Noah Walton also gives a wonderfully heartfelt performance on Press Night. Walton is brilliantly assured for such a young age. If all of the Charlies are as good as him then the role is in very safe hands.

“Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” brings Dahl’s magic to the stage in a warm and engaging production that will wow younger theatregoers and send the older ones back down Memory Lane with a smile on their faces.  It may not quite be a Golden Ticket as a musical, but as a piece of stage entertainment filled with hugely impressive technical wizardry, you’d be a Willy Wonka to miss it.

“Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” runs at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Sunday 5th March 2023 before continuing on its UK tour until late 2023.

Performance runtime 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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