Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical, review: a sweet confection in need of less slick CGI

Gareth Snook as Willy Wonka - Johan Persson
Gareth Snook as Willy Wonka - Johan Persson

This re-mounting of the 2013 West End musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems as reliable a family festive offering as a tin of Quality Street. Roald Dahl’s classic story has magic, morality, and mounds of chocolate; there’s glee in watching ghastly spoilt children meet their very sticky ends in the factory, while the good-hearted and generous Charlie Bucket gets rewarded in the end.

This is a solidly enjoyable evening, with that familiar story working like clockwork, but James Brining’s production doesn’t offer many moments of real wonder – or indeed, real danger. While the set-up, with the impoverished Charlie seeking a golden ticket, takes up the whole of the first half in David Greig’s adaptation, there’s actually more heart and depth to these family scenes than later more fantastical set pieces.

Charlie was played very touchingly on press night by the utterly endearing, heart-stealing Amelia Minto (the production has two girls and two boys alternating in the role), but her delightful relationship with the mischievous grandpa Joe (a twinkly Michael D’Cruze) gets a little lost once they’re in the factory.

This production, which goes on a massive tour next year, offers a lavish staging, with Simon Higlett’s set taking us from the desaturated world of grey poverty that the Bucket family inhabit – their cardboard shack is in a rubbish dump – into a sinister-looking steampunk factory which explodes with robotic dancing Oompa-Loompas (a smart staging choice, both creepy and comic) and tooth-achingly bright digital projections.

These are often dazzling, but are somewhat over-relied on – understandably, given the challenges of creating chocolate rivers and marshmallow trees, yet it rather undermines the show’s main sentiment: that of the power of imagination. Is it churlish to long for less soullessly slick CGI, more wonky stage magic?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Johan Persson
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Johan Persson

On the subject of “pure imagination”, the musical retains the great Newley/Bricusse song of the same name from the 1971 film, and it wipes the floor with the newer numbers written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman: these are fun when lampooning obnoxious children from around the world (especially the yodelling, bratwurst-munching Augustus Gloop), but otherwise unmemorable.

The movie looms in other ways too: while Gareth Snook has a slippery, riddling wit as Willy Wonka, Greig’s script emphasising the paranoia and capriciousness of this solo psycho-genius, Snook doesn’t yet deliver the magnetic, dangerous charisma the role really needs. Nonetheless, it all churns up into a sweet confection, that will no doubt shift tickets – even if they’re not quite golden.

Until 28 January. Tickets: 0113 213 7700; Leeds Playhouse