Although this is a children’s classic, it is one of those books which I have never read, being first published in the UK in 1964 and, as a 15 year-old at the time, I had other things on my mind. Also, having no offspring, I didn’t get to read it as a parent. This show made me see what I had been missing.
For those in the same boat the story is quite simple. Charlie Bucket, not pronounced Bouquet in this instance, is a schoolchild who lives in a slum near the Wonka Chocolate Factory which has been closed for several years. Out of the blue it opens and resumes production although no one is ever seen going in or out of the premises. One day it is announced that five Wonka Bars contain Golden Tickets which, if discovered, will allow the recipient and a guest into the factory for a tour. One of the lucky winners will also receive a bonus of Wonka Chocolate for life.
Obviously Charlie wins, or there wouldn’t be a story, and they take their Grandpa Joe, who miraculously regains his ability to walk after being bedridden for years, a fate shared with the other elderly members of the family; Grandma Georgina, Grandma Josephine and Grandpa George.
The other four kids who have won Golden Tickets are an obnoxious bunch and disposed of in different, confectionery-based ways. Needless to say, all ends happily for the family, the only other member of which is Mrs Bucket, Charlie’s mother.
I have used non-gender pronouns as there are four children who alternate in playing the part of Charlie, two girls and two boys – no idea – perhaps there has been a typo and it was really Willy Woker, but then the first name would need changing as well. Another thing which I fail to understand is that the action seems to be set in the spring of 1982 as there is a newspaper hoarding on the front of the sweetshop where Charlie buys their Wonka Bars, relating to the Falklands War. There is also a back projection of a tv screen with a facsimile of a Ceefax to Oracle type display, as well as a computer game of the time. I can find no reference anywhere of why this should be so. The book was published in 1964 and the musical first staged in 2013. There was a video game spin-off for a ZX Spectrum but that was in 1985. I sometimes wonder if I overthink things, especially nowadays when everything so lovingly crafted by original authors gets ignored.
Amelia Minto who played Charlie in the production I saw.
Right, back to the production. On press night the part of Charlie was played by Amelia Minto so I will take a chance that they don’t object to being referred to as she/her, I unreservedly apologise if this is not the case. She handled the part very well, especially in the acting department, not going for sugary cute or resort to shouting, rather than feeling her lines, as many child actors do. The only problem was her singing which couldn’t handle the loud high notes which were some way off the mark but I am sure that she will mature into a fine actress.
The four grandparents, who spent the vast majority of their stage time in bed, were very amusing in their banter. Michael D’Cruze as Grandpa Joe had the largest part as he was the one who accompanied Charlie to the factory, but the rest; Lucy Hutchinson, Julie Mullins and Christopher Howell, doubled as the parents of the other winners so got to display their versatility, in fact, Lucy Hutchinson normally plays a different character in the piece, Cherry, but swapped to these roles because of illness. Leonie Spilsbury had the honour of playing two parents, Charlie’s mother and Mrs Teavee, strange but true. The other Golden Ticket holders; Kazmin Borrer as Veruca Salt; Teddy Hinde, Mike Teavee; Marisha Morgan as Violet Beauregarde and Robin Simões Da Silva as Augustus Gloop, looked to be quite a bit older than Charlie, which could explain their late teenage attitude, all were very well acted.
The last main character was Gareth Snook who revelled in the evil nature of Willy Wonka, but, as you would expect, ended up showing his compassionate side to Charlie and family. He strode round the set waving his walking cane like a machete and wreaking vengeance on anyone who had the temerity to disobey the rules of the factory.
Speaking of the set, it was brilliantly conceived to be adaptable to various situations with the minimum of effort. The stage itself was empty except for a large pile of scrap metal in the middle to indicate the less than salubrious area in which the Buckets resided, it then morphed into their house which had no front so showing the interior comprising a bedroom with big bed to which the four grandparents were confined, and a ground floor room where Charlie and her mother lived. It then changed to provide the facade of the sweet shop where Charlie bought her chocolate bars, as did everyone else in the rush to win the Golden Tickets. We also had several set pieces from various parts of the world showing the winners discovering their prizes, complete with over exaggerated racial stereotyping.
The second half was set mainly in the Wonka Chocolate Factory and, if the set in part one was impressive, it was as nothing compared to part two. When the great gates of the factory opened we were taken into a fantasy land with special effects worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. At each stage, pardon the pun, of the chocolate making process one of the winners would meet their demise, I won’t give away any spoilers here but they were very inventive. Eventually we arrived at the R&D office where Charlie sat down to read the ideas of Mr Wonka whilst he was out of the room talking to Grandpa Joe. She had been specifically forbidden to touch the book but, being an inventor in her spare time, she wanted to add her own thoughts. When she was caught in the act it looked as though she would meet the same fate as her fellow winners but Wonka was so impressed by her innovations, the opposite happened. If you want to know what that was you need to go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/charlie-and-the-chocolate-factory/ and book your tickets. The show runs until Saturday, 28th January, 2023 and there are plenty of matinees should that be more convenient. When I saw that the production ran for 2 hours 30 minutes with one interval I thought that it might be a bit long for the younger members of the audience and, indeed, this did seem to be the case during the scene setting first half hour, but once the action started the kids, including this big one, were wrapt and the time flew past.
My favourite member of the Leeds Playhouse crew, the lady who translates the show into BSL, is also in attendance at some of the performances. I did notice, however, that the cast members also translate some of the scenes into sign language although I was intrigued to see that this didn’t always look the same as that being done by the translator, even accounting for a time lapse. I suppose that there are different levels of sign language which might account for it. Regardless, it is great to see the effort being made.
I don’t care how old you are I heartily recommend that you make the effort to go see this show, the second half alone is worth the admission price, it will blow your mind.
Please note that the photographs by Johan Persson, which were provided by Leeds Playhouse, do not completely reflect the cast of the version I saw.