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Review – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Musical (UK Tour) – Empire Theatre, Liverpool

MARC Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s stage musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s perennial classic had its premiere in 2013 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and, considering its impressive, record-breaking box office performance, it seems surprising that it has taken almost a decade to make its first UK tour. It does so now in a newly staged production directed by James Brining, which opened at Leeds Playhouse last autumn, and has finally hit the Liverpool stage after 12 months on the road.

Based both on the book and on the Warner Brothers film, the show cannily includes a couple of selected highlights from Lesley Bricusse & Anthony Newley’s film score amidst all the new material from Shaiman and Whitman, and it has to be said that without ‘Pure Imagination’ and ‘The Candyman’ it would be less of a crowd-pleaser.

The structure of the show is in the tradition of the original storytelling style in that it unfolds and develops gradually and with repetitive steps. Brining paces the first act steadily ensuring that we are fully immersed in the morality tale. Firstly we meet Charlie and their family and are simultaneously introduced to the innocence and innate kindness of this central character and to the unfolding story of Willy Wonka and his legendary factory. (Charlie in this production is played at alternate performances by one of two girls and two boys). Then follow a series of scenes in which we are invited to thoroughly dislike Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregard and Mike Teavee, as each in turn and then finally Charlie secure the coveted golden tickets to visit the confectionery king himself. It’s an hour long journey that brings us simultaneously to the factory gates and the intermission.

Act II of course takes us on the famous factory tour, when each of the obnoxious foursome is ignominiously despatched (a particular highlight here seeing a nut-grading squirrel declare Veruca Salt a ‘bad nut’ before chucking her into a skip) before Charlie flies off in a great glass elevator to claim the star prize.

It’s a practical choice to use young adult actors for the four ‘non-Charlie’ child roles, although possibly robbing the show of some potential charm. Robin Simoes Da Silva, Kazmin Borrer, Marisha Morgan and Teddy Hinde nonetheless throw themselves into the parts with suitably irritating gusto.

There are of course really three major stars of the show. Charlie (played with great charm on press night by Harmony Raine Riley), Grandpa Joe portrayed nimbly by Michael D’Cruze and finally Willy Wonka himself. Here the casting hits a definite high point with Gareth Snook, who makes the character his own. Like some of his chocolate, the character is played with more than a slight bitter edge balancing the sweetness, and while there’s a twinkle in the eye there’s a vocal slant towards The Simpsons’ Mr Burns about him, giving him definite sinister undertones.

While the first act staging is very traditional, Act II relies more heavily on digital projections to create many of the magical scenarios, but once you make the mental adjustment for the stylistic shift it certainly delivers a lot of visual magic.

In a bizarre and (thankfully) unfamiliar twist, some complete strangers had seen fit to post comments to my personal social media account before I even arrived home, telling me that this was the worst show they had ever seen. I struggle to understand why they felt the need to tell me this, but suffice to say that it is obviously a show that divides opinion. However, whilst it could certainly benefit from putting its foot on the gas a bit more in the first half, it is a hugely entertaining evening that has been made with excellent production values. This goes for everything from Simon Higlett’s richly decorated set and costume designs, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, to the very fine 10 piece pit band under the direction of Ellen Campbell.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues at Liverpool Empire until 26th November, after which it concludes its tour with visits to Dublin and Glasgow.
Tickets are available here

Star rating: 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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