I have very vivid memories as a child watching the original ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ film made in 1971. I watched it with my family on TV every Christmas and I loved it. Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka struck me as a fantastically charismatic but strangely dark, sinister character, while Charlie Bucket and his Grandpa Joe seemed to have a great time on their adventure together. This film was so colourful, creative and weird. It was like a magical childhood fantasy.
Many years later, I was working for a company, which hired out two-way radios. I sometimes used to go to deliver the radios to film sets, where they were often used on big productions. I remember going to Pinewood’s 007 set, where they were doing the 2005 remake of the film called ‘Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’, starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. This was a Tim Burton production and when I arrived on the set, I was amazed at how lavish, creative and surreal the set design was. The scale of it all was epic.
The set was not computer generated like most of them are now, so everything had been created and made from scratch. It was amazing. I remember having to replace some of the radios, as they had fallen into the giant running chocolate waterfall on the set, and were covered in a gooey, chocolate-brown substance.
When I saw recently that there was to be a captioned performance of the West End musical production of ‘Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I jumped at the chance to see it. Perhaps I am still a big kid at heart, but I was really excited about it. I asked some of my friends on the ‘Tree House’ Facebook group if they wanted to come along with my wife and I, so a group of us ended up going to see the matinee performance together last Wednesday.
This big West End production is being directed by the Hollywood Director Sam Mendes, who has directed two of my favourite films, ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Skyfall’, the James Bond film. I knew it would be a lavish stage production with very imaginative, visually creative sets.
One of my friends, Adhiti, has only recently had her new cochlear implant switched on after her operation, and she was very excited to see this musical. She had never seen a captioned performance before and was curious to find out what it would be like and what the music would sound like with her new cochlear implant.
We had really good seats in the Royal Circle, with excellent views of the two STAGETEXT caption units at both sides of the stage. It was really busy for a matinee performance as there were lots of school parties there, as well as lots of tourists.
Right from the start, the stage sets were awesome and on an epic scale. Visually, they were stunning, as they were very creative and inventive. It was just like a magical fantasy world. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lavish sets like it on the stage before. In the first half, we saw a lot of touching scenes of Charlie, with his parents and grandparents, who were desperately poor, but had immense pride, honesty and dignity. This was hugely contrasted with the scenes showing TV interviews with the four other Golden Ticket prizewinners, who were all either grotesque, fat, immensely spoilt and brattish or subversive.
These scenes were brilliant and very surreal. The stage was designed like you were looking inside a giant TV. One of my favourites was the interview with the hugely brattish girl Veruca Salt and her father, Mr Salt, the peanut millionaire. He reminded me of ‘Swiss Toni’, the spivvy fictional used car salesman character from the Fast Show.
Also, I loved the interview scene with the subversive ‘techno terrorist’ kid Mike Teavee and his ‘Stepford wife’ mother Mrs Teavee, who was dressed as a 1950s housewife, but who was drinking ‘mummy water’ to calm her shot nerves because of her son. It was brilliant.
The second half was set mainly inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but the stage sets changed constantly, mixing real sets with huge projected images, showing the different operational parts and engine rooms of the factory. The scene showing the garden made of edible sweets with the running chocolate fountain looked amazing. It was a very magical scene with beautiful flowers and brightly coloured sweets and lollipops.
All of the scenes were visually stunning and true to my memories of the original film. In one scene there was a row of puppet squirrels in a production line testing out nuts and setting off a red alarm flashing a warning of “Bad nut!”. The scene became hilarious when Veruca Salt decided that she wanted one of the squirrels as her own and rushed to grab one, only to find her father and herself going down the bad nut chute.
Alex Jennings, who played Willy Wonka, managed to capture the mixture of crazy, colourful, enigmatic genius in this character with his dark, weird side, brilliantly. The way he showed no remorse or compassion towards the other four children dispatched rather bizarrely along the way, showed his really sinister side. But at the end of the day, this story is a morality tale, with Wonka ending up leaving his beloved chocolate factory to the most deserving and humble child, Charlie.
We all really enjoyed watching this show and found it amazing. Adhiti told me that she had really loved it and that she had had “the best day”. I saw on Twitter that there had been another captioned performance that evening, with a large group of deaf people enjoying themselves watching it.
It goes to show that deaf and hard of hearing people love watching captioned musicals. I only wish that there were more of them, as they are usually restricted to one or two shows per theatre out of the whole season and there are several shows that I still want to see which aren’t being captioned at all. The runs of these big productions are really long, so come on theatre groups! Why don’t you make your musicals more accessible, so more deaf and hard of hearing people can enjoy a great night out?