Sam Mendes's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The show lacks the one thing that redeems Charlie - his imagination

Willy Wonka, like God, supplies temptation to his children and punishes them if they fail to resist it. Sam Mendes's crime is a failure of imagination.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Theatre Royal, Drury Lane Children’s authors and entertainers customarily assert that children are always their fiercest critics. My daughter, nearly six, loved the director Sam Mendes and writer David Greig’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She loved it so much that she asked at the end – perhaps mistaking the theatre for a DVD – if she could see it all over again. With the best seats going for almost £70, that would always have been unlikely. Having sat through it with her, I fear the producers would have to pay me handsomely to make a return visit. This vastly disappointing, hugely expensive musical almost kills Roald Dahl’s dubious classic. Children (or perhaps just my one) lack critical facilities, I must conclude.

But they are right to like Dahl, because his work is funny, eccentric and vivid and never worries about what grown-ups will think of it. This gives this Charlie the same advantage enjoyed by the adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda. Nevertheless, its makers face huge problems given that Charlie, played remarkably well at my matinee by 12-year-old Jack Costello, is a dull goody-goody. The interest is in Willy Wonka, who owns the factory – and in the factory itself, a vast theme park that’s literally good enough to eat. Studio lots and CGI made this possible to realise on film, in 1971 and in 2005. But it was always going to be a challenge for a theatre, even for one as large as the Theatre Royal.

At first I felt in safe hands. Cut into the unraised curtain was a framed cocoa bean from which the fantasy would surely grow as certainly as Jack’s beanstalk. Next came an animated doodle explaining the chocolatemaking process. Then we opened on the Bucket family, who are not only poor, as they are in the book, but now live on a scrapheap, neatly ducking any housing-benefit questions and also suggesting the play’s ultimate theme that something can come out of little, given enough imagination. I liked one other subversive touch, the street-seller with her anti-confectionery message that chocolate “gives you the trots and lots of spots”.

From there, the production lost pace as weak dialogue from Charlie’s Grandpa Joe (Nigel Planer) and the other Very Old People failed to raise laugh after laugh. The remainder of the act was spent watching, on a giant mock TV, the four other child winners of the golden tickets to Wonka’s open day, singing of their sins (gluttony, TV addiction etc). The wait for Charlie to find his own ticket drags even in the book. Here, I prayed for Charlie to find the damn thing and set things going. When he finally did, the curtain fell.

The second half , which takes us inside the factory, had to be a series of greatest-ever transformation scenes. But the chocolate room was dim and aquatic, like a tourist shop snowscene. Its waterfall was static. The pipe up which Augustus Gloop was sucked was industrial iron, not glass.The inventing room looked like a branch of Yo! Sushi. And so on. It would be unreasonable to expect 100 squirrel nut-testers to attack Veruca Salt, but here a handful of blokes dressed in squirrel suits have a punch-up as if on Harry Hill’s TV Burp. As for the Oompa-Loompas, the union of dwarf actors should sue for loss of work.

The threadbare trickery would not have mattered had the personality of Wonka and the power of the music sufficiently stimulated our willing suspension of disbelief. But Douglas Hodge’s Wonka was only adequate, lacking either Gene Wilder’s distracted zaniness or Johnny Depp’s damaged mania. He sang “Pure Imagination” better than Wilder – just as well, as it was the best number in the production. A couple of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s original songs – “Strike That! Reverse It!” and “Simply Second Nature” – had lyrical potential but remained stubbornly unhummable.

Again and again, I wished Mendes and his team had spent more time in the Inventing Room. Or perhaps they spent months there and inspiration never struck. Willy Wonka, like God, supplies temptation to his children and punishes them if they fail to resist it. Mendes could not resist the lolly either and he too has been punished. His show all too plainly lacks the one thing that redeems Charlie: imagination.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

The cast of Sam Mendes's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Helen Maybanks.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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