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 End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear