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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The new Gilmore Girls trailer is dated, weird, nostalgic and utterly brilliant

Except, of course, for the presence of Logan. I hate you, Logan.

When the date announcement trailer for Gilmore Girls came out, an alarm bell started ringing in my ears – it seemed like it was trying a little too hard to be fresh and modern, rather than the strange, outdated show we loved in the first place.

But in the lastest trailer, the references are dated and obscure and everything is great again. In the first five seconds we get nods to 1998 thriller Baby Moniter: Sound of Fear and 1996 TV movie Co-ed Call Girl. The up to date ones feel a little more… Gilmore: Ben Affleck, KonMari, the Tori Spelling suing Benihana scandal.

As in the last trailer, the nostalgia is palpable – a tour of Stars Hollow in snow, misty-eyed straplines, and in jokes with the audience about Kirk’s strange omnipotent character. It seems to avoid the saccharine though – with Rory and Lorelai balking at Emily’s enormous oil painting of her late husband.

What does it tell us about the plot of the new series? Luke and Lorelai are still together (for now), Rory has moved on from Stars Hollow, and Emily is grappling with the death of her husband (a necessary plot turn after the sad death of actor Edward Herrmann). In fact, Emily, Lorelai and Rory are all feeling a bit “lost”: Emily as she is trying to cope with her new life as a widow, Lorelai as she is questioning her “happy” settled life in Stars Hollow, and Rory because her life is in total flux.

We learn that Rory is unemployed and living a “rootless” or “vagabond” existence (translation: living between New York and London – we see skylines of both cities). But the fact that she can afford this jetset lifestyle while out of work, plus one plotline’s previous associations with London, points worryingly to one suggestion: Rory and Logan are endgame. (Kill me.) This seems even more likely considering Logan is the also the only Rory ex we see in a domestic setting, rather than in a neutral Stars Hollow location.

As for the other characters? Jess is inexplicably sat in a newsroom (is he working at the Stars Hollow Gazette?), Lane is still playing the drums (we know a Hep Alien reunion is on its way), Sookie is still cooking at the inn (and Melissa McCarthy’s comedy roles seem to have influenced the character’s appearance in the trailer’s only slapstick moment), Paris is potentially teaching at Chilton, Dean is STILL in Doose’s Market, Michelle is eternally rolling his eyes (but now with a shiny Macbook), Babette and Miss Patty are still running the town’s impressive amateur theatre scene, and Kirk is… well, Kirk.

The budget, context and some of the camerawork has evolved (the show’s style of filming barely changed excepting the experimental season seven), but much remains the same. For me, it’s the perfect combination of fan service, nostalgia, and modernisation (except, of course, for Logan. I hate you, Logan) – and seems to remain true to the spirit of the original show. Bring on 25 November!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.