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.

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

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