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Theatre Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ****

Scott Purvis-Armour reviews a 'constantly entertaining' production based on the classic story.

With The Witches currenting casting a spell at the National Theatre and the Trunchbull stomping on Matildasince 2011, the theatrical appeal of Roald Dahl is something of an Everlasting Gobstopper.

Now, Scottish playwright David Greig and the musical team behind Hairspray invite audiences beyond Wonka’s locked gates in James Brining’s constantly entertaining touring production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

A chapter-by-chapter stage adaptation of the 1964 novel, Greig’s witty book tells the familiar tale of Charlie Bucket, a grateful and plucky child who hopelessly dreams of a life beyond poverty. When the elusive and reclusive chocolate magician Willy Wonka announces the chance to tour his fortress of a factory, Charlie and the world become giddily glycaemic in a hunt for his Golden Tickets before venturing inside to mysteries unseen.

In a black top hat and crushed velvet tailcoat, Gareth Snook is excellent as Willy Wonka, a performance which mingles the new with the nostalgic. In moments wilder than Wilder and moments milder than Wilder, this Cheshire Cat chocolatier has a bitter edge of 70% cocoa. He chews each lyric like bubble gum, finding every flavour in this complex character and belting notes to the height of a Glass Elevator. It’s just a great pity that Wonka isn’t seen on stage until the end of the first act.

Snook is surrounded by a talented ensemble of performers who find the fun and fear in Dahl’s story. Michael D’Cruze is lovable as the bed-bound to factory-bound Grandpa Joe, and it is a beautiful thing to see Leonie Spilsbury sign for deaf audience members as her voice drips with honey in “The Candy Man.”

But one of the sweetest treats of the night is Glasgow girl Jessie-Lou Harvie as Charlie Bucket. This is a big show for small shoulders to carry, and Harvie plays the title character with fun, sensitivity and without saccharine.

Visually, Charlie and Chocolate Factory is a selection box of a musical which feeds the eyes and the heart. Simon Wainwright’s magical video projection designs are perhaps the most exciting and impressive ever seen in touring theatre. In one moment, a chocolate river torrents down into the stalls; in another, a bulb of light sparks mesmerising rainbows into the darkness. Simon Higlett’s superb set, too, opens with more surprises than an advent calendar. This is a West End worthy staging which is a sugar rush to the senses.

Nonetheless, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score is less scrumdiddlyumptious than expected. There is a Galaxy Ripple of excitement every time the audience hears a tinkle of recognisable music from the 1971 movie but, unfortunately, the production’s lyrically complex original songs are much harder to swallow and to follow.

Whilst Dahl would enjoy the clever word play, younger members of the audience are likely to find the Sondheimian somersaults at times very difficult to follow, a huge problem for a show predominantly aimed at kids.

Still, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fun flick through the pages of one of children’s literature’s most beloved stories. From ballistic ballet dancers to six-foot squirrels, this is a Turkish Delight of a production which takes audiences into a world of pure imagination.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory performs at the Kings Theatre in Glasgow until February 4, 2024. For further details, go to the production’s website.

Tags: theatre

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