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Review: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical

Sunderland Empire’s latest stage spectacular is choc-full of magic – ready to take you to a world of pure imagination…

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 04.08.2023

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical is a devilishly decadent delight.

And it’s got more than a few Twix up its sleeve…

If you’re in any way at a loose end trying to entertain the kids over the summer holidays, then I wouldn’t hesitate to book a ticket for this theatrical blockbuster.

Aimed at ages 7 and older, with tickets available from as little as £13, the show will continue its run at the Sunderland Empire until Sunday 13th August.

You’ll all know the story by now, such is the genius of Roald Dahl’s storytelling. When young Charlie Bucket wins a golden ticket to enter the weird and wonderful Wonka Chocolate Factory and meet the mysterious confectionary wizard Willy Wonka himself, it’s a chance in a lifetime to feast on all the sweets they’ve only ever dreamed of.

But beyond the gates, astonishment awaits.

Down the sugary corridors, among all the incredible, edible delights, Charlie and the other four lucky ticket winners discover that not everything is as sweet as it seems… and no-one will leave the factory in quite the same way as they arrived.

The story is as timeless as our love for chocolate. But this new stage musical is a revelation.

After all, it’s rare you find a family musical as vibrant, transformative and enchanting as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical.

I took the little ones to the show’s second night at the Sunderland Empire and they were transfixed: from the flying glass elevator and the nut-sorting giant squirrels to basketball-infused dance numbers and the (actually pretty cool) Oompa Loompas, the show was choc-full of spectacles that captured their imagination from start to finish.

And I enjoyed it, too. As well as admiring the artistry of the stage design needed to incorporate such an ambitious story, there was plenty of adult humour intertwined within the family-friendly storyline. And I definitely wasn’t the only grown up snickering at some of Wonka’s jokes. It seemed this wasn’t just for kicks, though; the humour that went over a lot of kids’ heads belied an undercurrent of dark realism that is often so important to children’s storytelling, and it gave the action a real sense of grit.

Of course, the music played a huge part in captivating our attention, too. Classic tunes from the 1970s film, including ‘The Candy Man’ and ‘Pure Imagination’, rubbed shoulders with brand new numbers (which, I discovered, shared the same award-winning songwriters from Hairspray). Together, they moved the action along at a steady pace while conveying the emotion and wonder that the story requires. And all the vocals were delivered to the exceptionally high standard I’ve now come to expect from the Sunderland Empire.

I always find my heart is in my mouth at the start of every stage production where children star as the lead. Despite knowing they’ve rehearsed for months, I’m always nervous that the pressure will get to them in front of such a large audience. I needn’t have worried for young Jessie-Lou Harvie, who turned out a mature, confident and moving performance as Charlie Bucket, (with a singing voice that projected flawlessly right into the rafters).

And if I’m to name-drop the starring performers in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical here, then Willy Wonka himself deserves a special mention. Gareth Snook lent the perfect combination of charm, mystery and humour to the role, balancing madcap freneticism with an enigmatic reservation that added something a little sinister to his Wonka. He was at once recognisable in his part of the Roald Dahl franchise and distinctive in how he made Willy Wonka his own.

My only advice to prospective theatregoers with this show, (I’m looking particularly at you, grown-ups), is to temper your expectations when it comes to the physical stage design. If it’s a built-up set full of lollipop trees and chocolate rivers that you’re expecting, like in the film adaptations, then you’re going to be disappointed.

But that’s not to say the show sacrifices any of these enchanting details from the story. By implementing innovative CGI effects onto an expansive backdrop, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allows its audience to benefit from all the visual magic of Wonka’s chocolate wonderland, while the action on stage can keep moving at a captivating pace.

So, yes, it needs a little imagination to fall fully into Wonka’s world, but the confectionary king says it best himself: it has to be believed to be seen. And if the reaction of my little ones was anything to go by, Charlie’s adventure along the rocky road of Wonka’s imagination was spellbinding.

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical runs at the Sunderland Empire until Sunday 13th August.  

For more information and to book your tickets, visit the Sunderland Empire website

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