The return of Sam Mendes — and Roald Dahl — to the London stage is a technical triumph. There are scenes of astounding complexity in this new stage adaptation of Dahl’s 1964 children’s fantasy. Willy Wonka’s little helpers the Oompa Loompas — surely the most bounteous opportunity for the employment of dwarf actors since the Wizard of Oz’s Munchkins — appear as one of the most tightly choreographed chorus lines in the West End, including the one in A Chorus Line. The Oompas are the little cogs of a huge and complex wheel in Mendes’s production, which despite its size keeps everything on a human, intimate scale.
In one of many stunningly-realised moments, the Oompas’ heads appear on suspended televisions while underneath the screens real torsos dance and body-pop like supercharged toys to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score. The stagecraft is stunning. And Mark Thompson’s designs are magical, from the towering factory with its chocolate waterfall, infinite corridors and robots, to the shadowy corrugated slum where Charlie Bucket — adorably played by Jack Costello on this night — lives with his bed-bound grandparents and cash-strapped mum and dad. Not a penny has been spared to evoke poverty in the Bucket home. Not a bean has been held back by the production’s Warner Bros backers to create Wonka’s world. The show will be a huge hit.
Yet emotionally, it doesn’t transport you anywhere near as far as it does visually. Rather, after introducing itself as a story about the most important thing in the world — chocolate — it sails along on a pleasing plateau of pleasure. Whereas the RSC’s version of Dahl’s Matilda struck awe and, thanks to Bertie Carvel’s amazing child-hating headmistress, fear into its audience, Charlie has nothing so dark and dangerous to offer. Not that Dahl doesn’t provide every opportunity. In his book, the avarice of each greedy child is rewarded with a terrible fate worse than — or possibly including — death. Here they are disposed of comically, but not scarily.
Other than Douglas Hodge’s Wonka — played with a dark undertow of misanthropy and deep suspicion of human nature — there is nothing to strike fear into a child’s heart. Shaiman and Wittman’s score cleverly provides each of Charlie’s fellow golden ticket winners with their own little show-stopper, each a little morality tale about nightmare children and their revoltingly indulgent parents.
But the songs written for Charlie are more saccharine than a crate of sweets. And there is nothing nearly so knowing about deprivation as Oliver’s Food Glorious Food.
That said, the numbers written for Wonka are much better, capturing a character who is driven to invent wacky confectionery not by a love of children but a talent to create. Yet the best song remains Anthony Newley’s Pure Imagination, written for the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder.
As with that version, the Oompa Loompas almost steal the show. Though in a possibly politically correct driven decision, they are not played by what the PC guidebook tells us should be called “little people”, but by a cast whose apparent height has been disguised by brilliant stage techniques and costume designs.
I appreciate there is always a whiff of exploitation when dwarf or small actors are used to entertain the public in this way. But if I were a little person and an actor, I might be as miffed by the decision to avoid casting me in a role for which I might be ideal. Perhaps it makes the scenes harder to laugh at. But to make a comparison to another blockbuster, Shrek, even the Oompas at full throttle aren’t as hilarious as the comically diminutive Lord Farquaad. Here we leave satisfied but, as when eating too much chocolate, maybe yearning for something more savoury.