Increasingly, stage musicals of movies – even if the story existed in another medium before it was filmed – have become matters of re-creation, reproducing the mood of the viewing experience and sometimes every theatrically possible detail. David Greig’s adaptation, then, deserves respect for shying away almost entirely from Tim Burton’s 2005 film and giving only the occasional nod to the 1971 version (including the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse song “Pure Imagination”), and feeling free even to embroider on Roald Dahl’s original book. The first sign of this is an entirely new projected opening sequence (based around drawings by Quentin Blake) on the chocolate-making process itself.
It is dramatically sensible to make the five lucky children’s entry into Willy Wonka’s factory the climax of Act One, but this entails dwelling rather longer beforehand on the penury of Charlie and the Bucket family, and trying to maintain a tone of “poor but happy”. It also correspondingly compresses the time in the factory itself, leading to a slight assembly-line feel: new fantastical Mark Thompson-designed room; misfortune befalls one of the horrible children; musical number from the Oompa-Loompas; next fantastical room . . .
Greig’s adaptation, and Sam Mendes’ production, do well at matching the Dahlian blend of wonder, darkness and cheek. (Some passing gags are not even explicated: the sharper viewer will notice that Violet Beauregarde meets her comeuppance via flavour no. 3.14159, blueberry pi.) Mendes seems even to be cheeking the venue’s own recent history, its hosting of the stage musical of Shrek: I’ll see your Lord Farquaad played by an actor dancing on his knees, he suggests, and raise you an entire chorus-line of Oompa-Loompas doing likewise (and thereby avoiding the issue of casting actors of restricted growth).
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman already have the musical success of Hairspray under their belts (is that a mixed metaphor?), but it is hard to escape the impression that the combination of sharp lyrics and golden-agey melodies here has been influenced by Tim Minchin’s game-raising work on Matilda. As for the acting, musicals are where Douglas Hodge cuts loose (footloose); his Willy Wonka dialogue still feels a little strained, but he will soon relax into it as he does into the capering in song. It is, however, rather unsettling for those of us of a certain generation to see former Young Ones actor Nigel Planer now in a position to play Charlie’s Grandpa Joe, however fine a job he makes of it.
Overall, the brief in this case clearly is one of visual ravishment plus warm glow, and Mendes, Greig and all concerned come up to the mark. It is flavoursome yet familiar, and above all it won’t rot your teeth.