An entertaining blend of modern cultural comment, clever humour and poignant whimsy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened its Melbourne season to a sea of expectancy.
Chock-full of eager patrons, Her Majesty’s Theatre witnessed more than a handful of theatre-goers dressed as their favourite characters. On a cold winter’s night, the easily recognisable interactive props and all-encompassing excitement set a warming prelude to the fun and laughter of Roald Dahl’s well-loved tale.
Lenny Thomas as Charlie (the role is shared by five young actors) captures the audience from his first appearance. He shares a lovely camaraderie with the hilarious Grandpa Joe, played by the irrepressible Tony Sheldon, whose Aussie yarns are the source of much amusement. Similarly, Mrs. Bucket’s love for her son is beautifully expressed by the delightful Lucy Maunder, and highlighted by the cleverly-emotive ghostly dance she shares with her absent husband (choreography by Joshua Bergasse).
Paul Slade Smith’s eccentric Willy Wonka has a definite nod to Gene Wilder’s 1971 portrayal. A consummate skilled professional, his character is witty and self-deprecating, while his cutting comments create an abrasive vibe, particularly when he interacts with the obnoxious Golden Ticket holders.
Watching adults play the roles of children is slightly disconcerting. The four performers, (and their parents), humorously encompass contemporary cultural stereotypes with Veruca Salt (Karina Russell) a spoilt Russian ballerina, Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley) an ADHD-suffering gamer, Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily) a bratwurst-loving German and Violet Beauregard (Jaymee-Lee Hanekom) as a hip-hopping, social media obsessed American. But their characters, however entertaining, create an awkward contrast with the capable young performers playing honest, hard-working Charlie.
The set alternates between a simplistic first act which perfectly explores the back story of Charlie and the Bucket family. Creatively designed by Mark Thompson, it focusses on the chocolate shop (run by Wonka-in-disguise), the bed filled with four grandparents (a humorous highlight of the original book) and the distant chocolate factory – perfect for the always-dreaming Charlie.
Act Two is a different story. The magical world contained within the chocolate factory is depicted through clever use of digital projection, bold lighting and a spectacular infusion of colour. Time passes quickly as the audience is carried along the familiar story, actively waiting for the demise of the four infuriatingly self-absorbed ‘children’. The use of technology to create atmosphere is cleverly contrasted by the introduction of the puppeteer Oompa Loompas – a definite stand out of the second act. Depth and emotion is added to the characters’ performances throughout the show by the brilliant combination of choreography, sound, light, projection, puppetry and costuming design.
All in all, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is engaging and entertaining. Musically, the audience is treated to a mix of whimsical old favourites plus a diverse new score which complement the strong cast performances. A cleverly crafted depiction of this classic tale of imagination interspersed with morality, it slightly lacks the expected ‘wow’ factor but still ticks many boxes for family fun and the remembrance of the magic of childhood.