Pure Phoenix imagination

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

February 5 – 27

From the initial moments of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, the differences between the musical and its 1964 Roald Dahl children’s novel source material are clear. The show opens with eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonker (Joshua Moore) explaining to the audience in ‘The Candy Man’ that he’s searching for a suitable successor to run his legendary chocolate factory. Despite having no money to spend on sweets, candy-obsessed Charlie frequents a local shop and befriends the owner, unaware that he is Willy Wonka, but inspiring him in a mad idea for a competition that will see five golden tickets hidden across the world in chocolate bars.

As we meet daydreamer Charlie (Lawson Berry) telling the shopkeeper about Wonka’s career (‘Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka!’) we see some changes in his presentation too; rather than the humble, kind and optimistic Charlie of the enduring story, this is Charlie with a bothersome attitude. However, as he returns to the decrepit shack in which he lives with his mother (Zoe Costello) and four bed-ridden grandparents: Grandpa George (William Chen), Grandma Georgina (Laura Baker), Grandma Josephine (Sally Faint) and a sprightly Grandpa Joe (Shannon Foley), the story settles into familiar territory of their life of cabbage soup, tall tales and Charlie’s dreams of inventing the world’s next big thing in confectionary.

The delicious tale proceeds with the revelation of the five all-access golden ticket winners, faring from Russia and Germany to California and Midwest USA, who, along with a parent, have opportunity to tour Wonka’s factory. We don’t get to the factory until after interval though, with Act One allowing for the media-frenzied introduction of the mostly-doomed culturally-stereotyped children of Wonka’s tour, with each getting their own song.

There’s the gluttonous wurst-twirling Bavarian, Augustus Gloop (Harley Roy) and his mother (Fiona Buchanan), ready to eat their own body weight in chocolate at the factory; pampered spoiled-brat Russian ballerina Veruca Salt (Victoria Sica) and her oligarch father (Tristan Ham); the narcissistic social media celebrity and self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Pop’ (owing to her non-stop gum-chewing habit) Violet Beauregard (Ellen Axford) and her determined-to-have-her-go-viral father manager (Steven Days); the tech-addict gamer Mike Teavee (Chris Drummond) who controversially has hacked his way to fraudulently receive a ticket, and his mother (Carly Quinn); as well as Charlie and his Grandpa Joe.

It’s all very pantomime (without the audience participation) and over-the-top in its quest for laughs, especially in scenes featuring Charlie’s bedridden grandparents, that also feature some unexpected adult humour such as in Grandma Georgina’s risqué reading material and later political nods to Trump’s middle America in the media’s reporting of Mike Teavee’s ticket discovery. And performers rise to the challenge. Even from within the chorus, Aina Betts and William Chen prove themselves to be consistent standouts, always dynamic and highly entertaining.

Axford gives self-styled Violet some spunky JoJo Siwa type energy, however, it is Roy that is the biggest standout (#punintended) as the greedy Augustus, always animated to perfection, even if only in the background of scenes with mouth agape, such as in reaction to the first appearance of Wonka towards the end of Act One, or when posing tummy-forward for the media’s cameras. Indeed, it is wonderful to see Roy and Buchanan play off each other throughout, such as when Mrs Gloop tries to cajole Augustus from his sads with some spirited cheek squeezes. It’s just a shame that he topples into Wonka’s chocolate river so soon in the story.

As always with a Phoenix production, challenges to staging are accounted for inventively, particularly as the children embark on their mesmerising joyride through the incredible inventions within the chocolate factory. Justin Tubb-Hearne bright costume and sets design combine to create an onstage wonderland, making the most of the venue’s modest setting to balloon Violet, shrink Mike, create a great glass elevator and enliven a dancing chorus of almost a dozen oompa loompas through body puppetry. There is a clear attention detail in support too, with candy imagery adorning the theatre space, in support of the swirling lollypops on sale, and thematic pre-show and internal songs of the ‘I Want Candy’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ sort.

The band of Musical Director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne (keys), Laura Nicole Guiton (horn), Dale Hosking (trumpet) and Jennifer Wilson (drums) are in fine form, allowing for showcase of vocal talents. There’s some decent songs, too, from Mrs Bucket’s sweet ballad reflection of how life could have been different ‘If your father were here’ and Wonka’s tender final ‘The View from Here’ in which he tells Charlie of his grand prize as the two soar above town in the Great Glass Elevator.  Beyond this, while songs fulfil their purposes, they don’t really stand out beyond the iconic music from the 1971 film especially the beloved, melodic ‘Pure Imagination’, although Act Two’s techno-esque ‘Vidiots’ about how no one every goes back to normal after being on television, does entice with a futuristic “Be More Chill” appeal.

The biggest strength of this show, is, without a doubt Joshua Moore as the delightfully-silly sweet-talking candy man himself. He is a strong leading man whose energy never wanes in magnetic exemplification of the eccentric confectionary entrepreneur. Whimsical in his physicality, yet cutting in many of his comments, he effortlessly incorporates nonsense terms, malpropisms and mis-odering of words into his dialogue, keeping with the distinctive language characteristics of Dahl’s writing.

While the show also incorporates Dahl’s dark humour in its illustration of what happens to children who misbehave despite warnings, there is an essential innocence to it, making its experience great fun for the young (with stamina for its lengthy running time) and the young at heart willing to enter a world of pure imagination and put aside its plot holes. It is, therefore, easy to appreciate how this world amateur premiere season is already sold out.

Photos c/o – CF Photography Families

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