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Dahl Does Dante At Sam’s Chocolate Factory

July 31, 2013

A modern morality play scores points in London’s West End

Sam Mendes is a talented director; though perhaps over spun by the hype merchants behind the show’s playbill, he has nonetheless delivered a strong showing in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like you, I was skeptical of what I saw as a “kids production”, but came away pleasantly surprised by an acidic message buried in a saccharine wrapper.

What Mendes has conjured from this show is a ruthless morality message, and it’s made better for its severity. Mendes wastes no time in this delivery. The curtain rises to Charlie playing in a junkyard, coveting the wrappers from Wonka chocolate. We are presented Charlie’s family as economically destitute but not morally bankrupt or criminal: in lacking possession they are rich in intangibles. The show moves swiftly to a familiar parental quandary: the child wants, the parent seeks to deliver; only here, the probability of delivery is constrained by a sheer lack of economics. As opportunities are won by ever more wealthy personifications of the deadly sins, Charlie’s desperation draws a further toll on his already over stretched family. Left offstage is Charlie’s probable lobbying. Instead, Charlie is presented as winning his ticket through a fortunate windfall validated by subsequent moral quandary: having made enough of a good faith effort to return the abandoned money, Charlie duly wins his gold ticket. Goodness is thus rewarded with opportunity, and the curtain falls on the first act.

In the second, the moral message is hammered home. The flawed competitors swiftly fail to their lackings: gluttony, sloth, avarice, and greed. Mendes draws the catharthis long and the climax short, setting up the defining moral chapter of the show nearly at curtainfall: it is Charlie’s calling off of his Grandfather’s demand to be paid that leads to the mercurial Wonka’s decision to pass on ownership of the chocolate factory. Charlie’s recognition of the value of intangible benefit, and his conscious rejection of personal reward, swing Wonka to see the boy as his logical successor. Other directors have brought this forward, to enable a basking happy ending, but not Mendes: this is a parable of human flaw, a criticism of the human condition in which the sinners are flayed in a modern paean to Dahl doing Dante.

At halftime, the general consensus was that the show was better than expected, and that view held to the final whistle. But it is only on further reflection that the quality really shows. Veruca Salt is, of course, perfectly appalling; but the scripting of her father demanding to buy assets from Wonka presents a perfect defence for the value of artisan work: “these squirrels are not for sale… I cannot value them” Wonka says, and Veruca soon stumbles to her demise. “I cannot get my daughter on the cover of a magazine” says another distraught parent, after said daughter has literally exploded on stage; the ultimate ironic twist being that the bonfire of false gods was lit to satisfy their own supporters.

And this is ultimately what Mendes gets right about Dahl: the author knew his young audience did not lack for compass. He’s nothing but consistent in acidic observation, a feature the director gives us. And in embracing that, Dahl’s work remains relevant to readers today. Mendes gives an update in style, but is honest to source. And for this reason, there is strong argument to see it. This is not a candy coloured, technicolor dream lacking in spine, but an accurate, sharp imaging of a relevant story.

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, directed by Sam Mendes, is at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

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