How do you turn one of the most beloved family films of all time into a successful stage musical?
Mel Stuart’s 1971 adaptation of Road Dahl’s iconic children’s novel has become so deeply embedded in the hearts of several generations that it seems like nothing could ever compare - as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp found out in 2005.
The short answer is: you can’t. There is nothing that could compare to Gene Wilder’s turn as Wonka, or Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s timeless songs. However, if you leave your preconceptions at the door, this musical adaptation - which ran for over three years on London’s West End after its 2013 debut - is a more than serviceable adaptation of Dahl’s fantastical tale about an eccentric chocolate mogul and the five children who win golden tickets to tour his secretive factory.
There are some big changes in this adaptation, but they are handled mostly well. On the night we attended, Charlie Bucket is a girl (played by 11-year-old Scottish actress Jessie-Lou Harvie in a seriously impressive performance) who proudly (and perhaps pointedly) wears a cardigan emblazoned with the pride flag colours. The Oompa Loompas are silver-clad robotic figures of varying heights, rather than the derogatory orange-faced dwarves. Such alterations seem a little clumsy but ultimately make little difference to the production, although one dad sitting behind us can be heard muttering about ‘Willy Woke-a’.
The songs are different, too; apart from a couple of tracks from the film (‘The Candy Man Can’ and ‘Pure Imagination’), there is nothing recognisable, and truthfully, nothing particularly memorable from the songbook here. Still, the magic of the story keeps things afloat as Violet Beauregarde (who is now an influencer) turns into a blueberry and the surly Mike Teavee is shrunk by Wonkavision and leaves the factory in his mum’s handbag.
There is heavy use of visual effects throughout, and when they work well - such as the scene where Augustus Gloop is sucked out of the chocolate river and into a tube - they are a delight. Gareth Snook, meanwhile, plays Willy Wonka with dashes of darkness and mania woven into the character’s kooky personality. In truth, Snook has perhaps the most difficult role of all; putting your own stamp on such an iconic character is not easy, but the experienced West End actor manages to win the audience over with his dandyish allure.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly outing this Christmas with frivolous fun for the youngsters and more than a few hits of nostalgia for the older members in the audience, you’d do worse than to bag yourself a golden ticket for this show.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin until January 7th.