Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Bristol Hippodrome

DESCRIBED as one of the most popular children’s stories ever written, Roald Dahl’s work has survived several re-writes – in order to make it more acceptably politically correct – and two blockbuster film versions, since it was first published in 1964.

When it was first suggested that it would make a good stage musical, there were many doubters who believed that the spectacular effects seen in the 1971 and 2005 films. starring (respectively) Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp as the eccentric factory owner Willy Wonka, could not be successfully replicated on stage.

A three-year run in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, disproved that theory, but because of the costs involved in mounting such a production, since it closed in the West End six years ago little has been heard of it. Using practically every form of theatrical devices now available to create wonderful illusions, without vast scene changes and hundreds of props, Leeds Playhouse has come up with an exciting production which is a visual treat and captures the feel-good atmosphere of Roald Dahl’s story.

Marc Shaiman’s music, with added lyrics from Scott Wittman, and a couple of borrowed Leslie Bricusse numbers (Candy Man and Pure Imagination), boisterously played by MD Ellen Campbell and the orchestra, fit snugly into a production, directed with drive and pace by James Brining,

Four talented young players, Isaac Sugden, who was in fine form on the night we attended, Harmony Raine Riley, Haydn Court and Jessie-Lou Harvie, have the privilege of bringing one of Roald Dahl’s best loved characters to life, each bringing their own distinctive interpretation to the character. They all receive tremendous support from the experienced Michael D’Cruze, a lovable Grandpa Joe, and Leonie Spilsbury, whose beautifully judged portrait of Charlie’s hard-working, weary mother, and later as the over-tolerant parent of Teddy Hinde’s bullying schoolboy, Mike Teavee, left you wishing that there were more opportunities for her to show off her acting and vocal abilities.

Fans of the two film versions will declare allegiance to Gene Wilder, 1971 or Johnny Depp, 2005. I don’t know which side Gareth Snook would be on, but while you might find traces of both in his presentation of Willy Wonka, no-one could accuse him of just making a cardboard cutout of anyone else’s portrayal. The eccentric vagueness of someone whose mind is fixed on just one subject, his precious chocolate factory, is a constant in his dealings with all those children who have won a precious golden ticket to explore his pride and joy.

Never suffering fools for any reason, he disposes of Robin Simoes Da Silva’s glutton Augustus Gloop in a sea of chocolate, turns Marisha Morgan’s gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde into a large blueberry, sends Kazmin Borrer’s spoilt brat Veruca Salt down the waste-tube, reduces Teddy Hinde’s demanding Mike Teavee to the size of a doll and takes his chosen successor Charlie Bucket – and the audience – via the combined efforts of the set, lighting, sound and video designers on an aerial tour of the factory and the surrounding countryside.

For those with clear memories of the original, those delightful Oompa Loompas have not been forgotten. Costumed in striking style, grey rather than the traditional orange, by Simon Higlett, and a little larger as played and danced with verve and vitality by the hard-working ensemble, they make their mark on the production.

A moral tale wrapped in sweet chocolate candy, where goodness, love and selflessness win out over hate, greed and selfishness, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will delight children of all ages during its stay at the Hippodrome which finishes on Sunday 8th October.


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