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REVIEW: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - The Musical at Sunderland Empire

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - The Musical

Sunderland Empire 

Until Sunday 13 August 2023

Roald Dahl's tale of children visiting a chocolate factory has finally left a successful run in the London's West End and headed to the North East for the first time for an eagerly awaited run.

This is one story in which the audience will already know the story. Many will have read the popular book. Film fans will either be in the Team Gene or Team Johnny camp. The issue here is that each film, and indeed the musical, is an interpretation of the original source material and thus there will be variations - some more subtle than others. In the end, what is more important is that the audience is given an entertaining evening around a familiar theme.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a musical, directed by James Brining, which is based on the 1964 children's novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The show benefits from a large orchestra of 10 under musical director Ellen Campbell. 

The show uses four talented children for the role of Charlie and the show has a 7pm start time (I suspect children employment laws kick in here - don't be caught out by the earlier than normal start time). Press night opened with the confident and talented Jessie-Lou Harvie launching in to the big opening number Almost Nearly Perfect. What I loved immediately is that Jessie-Lou was using her natural regional/Scottish accept rather than having it voice-coached into RP. It helped give the story a feel of authenticity.

The story goes that Charlie is very poor. As in old cabbage soup every day sort of poor. She lives in a shack with her mother (Leonie Spilsbury) and Grandpa Joe (Michael D'Cruze), Grandpa George (Christopher Howell), Grandma Josephine (Lucy Hutchison) and Grandma Georgina (Emily Winter). The grandparents all share a bed together and don't seem to ever leave it. 

Charlie loves Wonka's chocolate and thus the grandparents go into full exposition mode. The background story goes that Wonka, the manufacturer of the greatest chocolate, was spied upon and had his ideas stolen. He then shut down his factory but several years later, the lights went on and production recommenced - however no one enters and no one leaves the factory. The mystery behind the factory walls adds to the lore of the brand.

Mother arrives with a copy of that day's newspaper that had been left around and the headline is that Wonka plans to allow five lucky golden ticket winners the opportunity to tour the factory, and one of those will be chosen to have a lifetimes supply of chocolate. This news is greeted with high expectation by the family and they hope that Charlie will get a golden ticket in her annual birthday treat.

Meanwhile news on the radio from Jerry (Ewan Gillies) and Cherry (Lydia Bradd) details each of the winners from around the world as the tickets are found. 

Thus one by one we are introduced to each of the characters - each one in Dahl's writing - coming across as one of the seven deadly sins. Augustus Gloop (Robin Simões Da Silva), Veruca Salt (Emma Robotham-Hunt), Violet Beauregarde (Katherine Picar) and Mike Teavee (Teddy Hinde) then enter the fray in turn. Meanwhile poor Charlie seems out of luck.

This production differs from the West End show in a number of ways - some of the music has changed - though the wonderful Pure Imagination remains. It is also heavily reliant on a pair of video screens: one on the back wall and the other on the stage floor itself. Between the pair of screens the tour by Willy Wonka (Gareth Snook) is revealed. It saves on a lot of the issues of trying to create this imaginative world but at times loses that kinaesthetic feel of real props. When actual props are used it does help with the storytelling.

What really makes this show swing is in the believability of the close relationship between Grandpa Joe and Charlie, coupled with the authenticity of the eccentric Wonka. Gareth Snook really works as Wonka. This is a challenge in itself as we arrive at the theatre with a preconceived idea about this character: how he talks, thinks and behaves. By allowing Wonka the occasional opportunity to sarcastically break the fourth wall in his feelings about the repugnant children and their carers it brings the audience along for the ride.

It is strange to see peoples reactions when you discuss this story/musical.  Some put it down, on a superficial level, as just a children's story - it does indeed work as a children's story. That opinion ignores the much darker side to Dahl's work. Perhaps it is being a part of the generation raised on the Tales of the Unexpected - but there is a series of underlying messages that can be extrapolated from this tale. That is what makes this a great story to bring to the stage. 

Certainly, the musical is, in my opinion, much better than the remake (sorry Team Johnny!)    Jessie-Lou Harvie is someone I suspect we will see much more of in the future. She has bags of talent and seemed unfazed at having the weight of this production on her young shoulders.

Photos: Johan Persson


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical will hit Sunderland Empire’s stage from Wednesday 2 – Sunday 13 August 2023. Tickets are available online from our affiliate ATG Tickets at*

*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to online bookings.

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