In Depth

Sweet and sour reviews for 'Charlie and Chocolate Factory'

Sam Mendes's big-budget musical boasts 'amazing' sets but can't match 'Matilda's' magic

ONE of the year's most anticipated West End musicals has opened to mixed reviews. Despite boasting impressive credentials – it is directed by the Oscar-winner Sam Mendes and based on the 1964 children's book by Roald Dahl – most reviewers feel that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory doesn't quite produce that "sugar-rush of magic".

The musical is Mendes's first project since the release of Skyfall, the most successful James Bond film to date. He was still shooting the movie while developing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of a boy who wins a competition to visit the factory of "eccentric chocolatier" Willy Wonka.   

Although the big-budget stage production earns mostly three-star reviews – and attracted A-list celebrities including Uma Thurman and Sarah Jessica Parker to its opening night – critics say the musical falls short of sky-high expectations.

Mendes lays on the "theatrical goodies with a trowel", according to Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, but this leaves the musical "overblown" and "rarely elating".

It doesn't help that comparisons have inevitably been drawn with the Royal Shakespeare Company's award-winning  adaptation of Dahl's Matilda.

Spencer says that although Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's special effects are "amazing", the show "rarely touches the heart" in the way the "far less spectacular" Matilda does.

Paul Taylor in The Independent points out that the show was already at a disadvantage before the curtain went up because the character of Matilda is far easier to relate to than Charlie, who "begins and ends as the soul of unselfish sweetness".

Most critics also agree with Libby Purves in The Times, who called the music "mainly unmemorable" – a serious issue for a West End musical. She said Pure Imagination – a song borrowed from the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder as Wonka – was the best number by far.

The production is let down by a long first act: Charlie does not arrive at Wonka's magical sweet factory until the second act. This, according to Paul Taylor, leaves the audience "largely marooned" with Charlie's impoverished, bed-ridden family for far too long.

However the critics are unanimous in their praise for Douglas Hodge's performance as Wonka. Paul Taylor describes it as a "master-class in comic timing".

Michael Billington in The Guardian says Hodge has the "great gift" of being engaging and sinister at the same time, and credits Mendes for "masterminding a lavish bonanza of a musical".

Perhaps surprisingly, the oompa-loompas – Wonka's diminutive helpers – were also singled out for praise. Libby Purves said the chorus-line of actors dancing on their knees was "a highlight".

Despite describing the musical as "overblown", Charles Spencer admits Charlie is tailor-made for today's audiences, leaving him in no doubt "it will be a big hit".

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