Left – Ryan Yeates and Paul Slade Smith. Cover – Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon, Danielle O’Malley, Johanna Allen, Kanen Breen, Tommy Blair. Photos – Jeff Busby
Following on from the success of the hit musical, Matilda, another adaptation of a classic Roald Dahl story makes its Australian stage debut.
The modern fairy tale of the kind-hearted but poor-as-a-church-mouse Charlie, and the eccentric genius-stroke-madman in search of an heir for his peculiar chocolate factory, will surely be familiar to anyone born after 1971, when the now classic children’s film starring Gene Wilder as Wonka, was first released.
Given the iconic status of the film, it's a little surprising that it’s taken so long to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical make its stage debut. The first iteration of this production, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Scottish playwright David Greig, with an original score by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, was plagued by technical issues and underwent constant rewrites right up until it's London opening in 2013. However once it did finally open, the West End version ran for a respectable three and a half years. A reworked version, directed by Jack O’Brien, opened on Broadway in 2017, and included a number of songs from the 1971 film that were omitted from the London production. It is this Broadway version that now makes its debut in Sydney.
The characters in this new production have received a 21st century makeover – Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley) is still a slave to the tube, but in 2019 it's a different kind of screentime he craves, while Violet Beauregard (Monette McKay) is addicted to social media in order to gratify her relentless need for attention. Veruca Salt (Karina Russell) is now the demanding spoilt brat of a Russian oligarch, while Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily) is a sprightly German stereotype, who enjoys yodelling and is rather too fond of bratwurst.
Not only have the characters been updated in this new version, but the whole chocolate factory has apparently been transplanted to Australia. Charlie (the excellent Ryan Yeates on opening night, but alternately played by four actors), and the Bucket family (including Lucy Maunder as Charlie’s mum), speak in Australian accents, while the energetic Grandpa Joe ( the irrepressible Tony Sheldon) regales his grandson with nonsensical memories of Burke and Wills.
Unlike Matilda, all of the child roles in this production (apart from Charlie) are played by grown-ups. This gives the production a slightly pantomime feel – in a good way – and allows this stage version to be less cautious than the somewhat sanitized 1971 film. Perhaps more authentic to Dahl’s style, the grotesque behaviour of the ‘children’ in this production earns them suitably gruesome ends for their transgressions, which in the exaggerated world of the play, has the audience stamping and cheering – probably not a response you’d expect when viewing the film.
One of Dahl’s most controversial creations (and Dahl was no stranger to controversy), the Oompa Loompas as conceived in the original 1964 book, were heavily criticised at the time as derogatory and racist. Despite his claims that the Oompa Loompas were entirely made up, the original version of the book describes them as a tribe of African pygmies. After listening to the concerns of the NAACP amongst others, Dahl was persuaded to revise his depiction of the Oompa Loompas for the second edition of the book, instead describing them as white dwarves with funny long hair from the fantastical land of Loompaland. Fortunately, it is something closer to this latter version of the Oompa Loompas presented in this production. I won’t spoil it here, but the producers have opted for a deceptively simple lo-tech device for the Oompa Loompas, which works a treat.
Of course, any production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hinges on the strength of the eccentric candyman, Willy Wonka, and Paul Slade Smith does a fine job in the pivotal role. Not quite as world weary or sentimental as Gene Wilder, and less frenetic (and well…weird) than Jonny Depp, Smith nevertheless maintains a kooky, high energy throughout.
The production design (Mark Thompson, Japhy Weideman, Andrew Keister, Jeff Sugg and Basil Twist) employs a mix of hi and lo tech theatrical devices, including digital displays, video projection, puppetry and the occasional lame mime. But for the most part it works well to reinforce the exaggerated fantasy Wonka world.
With strong performances throughout this is definitely a solid production, but on a smaller scale and without the same wow factor of Matilda or other ‘blockbuster’ musicals. It loses the sentimentality of the famous 1971 film, approaching something more akin to the Grimm Brothers. Nevertheless, this updated version works surprisingly well, proving yet again, the more things change the more things stay the same.
John Frost, Craig Donnell, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions and Neal Street Productions presents
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
book by David Greig | score by Marc Shaiman | lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman | based on the book by Roald Dahl
Director Jack O’Brien
Venue: Capitol Theatre | Campbell Street, Haymarket Sydney NSW
Dates: 5 January – 19 May 2019
Tickets: From $59.90
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au | 1300 795 267