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Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Liverpool Empire ***1/2

While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the story may turn the big 6-0 next year, like Peter Pan, its titular protagonist remains forever a child.

But Roald Dahl’s tall (morality) tale, wrapped up as it is in a crazy colourful confection of sugary shenanigans and gloopy goings on, is a family favourite which continues to appeal to all age groups, from young’uns to Grandpa Joes.

And there are children to grandparents too among the audience for this stage musical version, currently at the Empire as part of an inaugural UK tour.

Charlie Bucket (played with real confidence and stage presence by Harmony Raine Riley on press night, making Charlie a girl lead) lives an impoverished but uncomplaining life on a scrapyard with her mum and a quartet of bed-bound but cheerily resilient grandparents. Her single treat in life is a bar of chocolate on her birthday.

When mysterious recluse Willy Wonka hides five golden tickets in his confectionary with a visit to his factory as the prize, Grandpa Joe (an engaging performance from Michael D'Cruze with hints of Dick van Dyke) encourages Charlie to dream of winning one.

As Dahl fans know, sometimes dreams do come true and eventually Charlie and Grandpa find themselves on the doorstep of the Wonka chocolate factory, along with four rich, greedy and/or dysfunctional young people and their enablers. Sorry, parents.

Inside, a chocolatey nirvana awaits them. Or does it?

Above: On an adventure in the chocolate factory. Top: Willy Wonka (Gareth Snook). Photos by Johan Persson.

Playwright David Greig respects Dahl’s sly original, tempering the story’s saccharine surroundings – and any risk of sentimentality - with some tangy lines to savour.

The musical’s songs meanwhile come from the illustrious Marc Shaiman, but its memorable numbers turn out to be those co-opted from the 1971 film and written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

Leonie Spilsbury’s Mrs Bucket delivers one, The Candyman, towards the end of the first half, and Gareth Snook’s Wonka sings, passionately, about a world of Pure Imagination after the interval.

Of course, books allow their readers to indulge in (impossible) flights of pure imagination and on screen, special effects and editing make most things possible.

All of which creates an expectation for spectacle which is an almighty challenge for live theatre, further constrained if you have to recreate it on a myriad of different stages.

Designer Simon Higlett's vertiginous junk yard framing looks impressive on the Empire’s huge stage, while most of the weird and wonderful action inside the chocolate factory is realised via lighting, illusion and through Simon Wainwright’s ambitious video design, with variable success.

Above: Inside the chocolate factory. Photo by Johan Persson.

That variability is echoed in the wider show, where, despite some enjoyable individual performances and entertaining moments, overall there’s a strange lack of ‘wow’ factor - the whole adding up to less than the sum of its parts.

It doesn’t help that while individually bright and energetic (Kazmin Borrer’s entitled brat Veruca Salt is one standout), when rolled together the scenes in which the (ghastly) golden ticket winners are revealed make the first half feel sluggish and rather repetitive.

It takes an hour to assemble the five lucky young people and for Wonka, here part Mad Hatter, part circus ringmaster, to appear.

When he does finally take centre stage, Snook proves a powerful presence as the eccentric and unpredictable confectionary king, charming and sociopathic in turn, while the ensemble imbues the factory’s mechanical Oompa Loompas with plenty of attitude and some sweet harmonising as they dispatch its errant, entitled visitors.

And who can resist a giant nut-sorting squirrel? I'm with Veruca on that one.

These are the cellophane-wrapped hazelnuts in caramel in a theatrical confection which elsewhere contains a few too many toffee pennies.


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