PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official critics have not been invited to this show yet.
Matilda forgive me if I was a bit cynical at news that a huge musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was in the works - would it be rushed to the stage to catch some of the buzz of the last Roald Dahl adaptation? More encouraging was the creative team: With David Greig providing the book, music from Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can's Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and directed by Sam Mendes, its pedigree definitely made it worth a look. Locked away in his factory, Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) makes the world's best-loved chocolate, but is himself a mysterious figure. Until a promotion puts golden tickets in five chocolate bars, with the lucky winners promised a trip of the factory. Four spoilt children get the trip of a lifetime, while the final ticket goes to dirt-poor Charlie Bucket (Jack Costello, Tom Klenerman, Isaac Rouse or Louis Suc.)
Mark Thompson's sets are the immediate thing you remember about the production, especially in the second act where half a dozen different designs appear on stage in quick succession as we see the tour of the factory, where all the children except Charlie meet with sticky ends when they disobey Wonka's rules. But the production has more than flashy visuals to recommend it, including a lot of heart.
The production takes its cues more from the original film adaptation than the more recent one, while adding some little touches of its own: I may be wrong but I don't think the book or films suggest that Wonka directly influences Charlie winning his ticket, as we get here - Hodge appears early on as a tramp who spots the boy's kindheartedness. It's a bit of a mistake though to tease that he may replicate Gene Wilder's famous entrance when he makes his first appearance as Wonka - fun though the trick he does do is, it's not going to live up to acrobatics. And Thompson's huge sets do push a lot of the action downstage - unfortunate, since this is a blind spot for pretty much the entire Balcony at the Theatre Royal.
Shaiman and Wittman's songs are entertaining and I'll probably end up downloading them when the soundtrack becomes available - I didn't come out humming any but that isn't helped by the inclusion of another famous element of the Mel Stuart film, "Pure Imagination," which inevitably ends up being the one in your head by the end. But there's fun numbers like Wonka's introductory "It Must Be Believed To Be Seen" and the Oompa Loompas' frantic "Vidiots!" that sees off the hyperactive Mike Teavee (a brilliantly energetic turn tonight from Jay Heyman, alternating with Adam Mitchell and Luca Toomey) plus some more tender moments like Charlie's parents' (Alex Clatworthy and Jack Shalloo) "If Your Mother Were Here."
Regular-sized actors are comically scaled down, with different levels of success, to play the Oompa Loompas - the creepier takes on the design are the best, as some of that edge is missing elsewhere: Hodge doesn't quite settle on how sinister he wants to play Wonka, and the show's not as successful as Matilda at incorporating Dahl's twisted sense of humour. The closest it gets is with the really quite dark take on a clearly mentally ill Mrs Teavee (Iris Roberts) and her reaction to what happens to her son. But Mendes' production does hit the right notes in the joy of the piece, and even manages to get an emotional kick out of the Dickensian parody that is Charlie's home life - I was surprised at how moving, despite its inevitability, Charlie's discovery of the golden ticket proved.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by David Greig, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is booking until the 30th of November at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.