Charlie & the Chocolate Factory: a deliciously dark treat!

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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.

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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 social media 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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An inclusive event for all deaf people at the Wallace Collection

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I was delighted to attend a fantastic event at the Wallace Collection last Saturday. It was to celebrate the opening of the new Great Gallery there, which has recently re-opened after a two-year refurbishment programme. It was a special evening access event for deaf and hard of hearing people, which was made fully inclusive to all via total communication support in the form of professional lipspeaking, BSL and SSE interpreters.

When I first heard about this event I was immediately interested in attending because it would be the first organised event for deaf people that I had seen that didn’t just cater for one section of the deaf and hard of hearing community in terms of the communication support provided. This event was for the full spectrum of the deaf community.

Wallace Collection blog_lipspeakersI was amazed to see so many people there, and such a diversity of people, from cochlear implant users like myself, to deaf BSL users, deafened and hard of hearing people. I met up with several of my deaf friends and people I know from the various deaf groups and charities I am involved with. This was the first time I had seen them all together at the same venue. I also met some new people that evening, and there were people from all age groups.

The Great Gallery is the “jewel in the crown” of the Wallace Collection and runs the entire length of the city block in Central London. As I stood there and gazed around me, I was struck by how beautiful it is. It is truly stunning and it takes your breath away. With its red silk walls covered in Old Master paintings in opulent gold frames, I felt like I was standing inside one of the Royal Palaces.

Lucy Davies, the curator at the Wallace Collection, started out by describing the refurbishment programme of the Great Gallery, which was a huge project lasting two years, and how excited they were to re-open it recently. It was originally built by the founder of the Wallace Collection, Sir Richard Wallace, in 1870. It was intended as a picture gallery in Hertford House to amaze visitors by showing off his best paintings and furniture.

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During the recent refurbishment programme, they rebuilt the ceiling and introduced natural lighting through it, which is how it was originally intended to be. This gallery is special and different from other museums as it displays masterpieces from all over Europe in one space, and it is not divided into many national schools. Most of the paintings in the gallery are European paintings dating back to the 17th Century, which the Marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace collected in the 19th Century.

After Lucy’s talk, there was a series of talks to the group by four different deaf or hard of hearing lecturers and art experts, with each person talking about one of their favourite paintings or artefacts in the Great Gallery, with fascinating stories about the background of each one and its connection with the Hertford and Wallace families.

One of my favourite talks was a BSL talk by John Wilson, about a large painting of King George IV done in 1822 by the artist Thomas Lawrence in the Great Gallery. The artist’s life and career were quite closely connected to the subject, and the original owner of this painting, the third Marquess of Hertford, was a former ambassador to Berlin and Vienna and also Master of the Horse to George IV.

At the time of the painting King George IV was 61 years old and he weighed 21½ stones. He is wearing a chestnut wig in the portrait and he liked to be painted by Thomas Lawrence as he painted him in a very flattering light.

Wallace Collection blog_George IVWith two failed marriages behind him before he became king, Prince George began a relationship with Lady Hertford, who later became his mistress when she was a very large 50-year old woman, and he was 45 years old. He used to visit her every afternoon at Hertford House (the present Wallace Collection museum).

In 1820 the Prince Regent became King George IV and he replaced Lady Hertford with Lady Conyngham, an obese 52-year old woman. The painting of King George was given to Lady Conyngham and it was later acquired by Sir Richard Wallace to be displayed in Hertford House.

I was fascinated to learn that one of Thomas Lawrence’s pupils and assistants, Samuel Lane, was profoundly deaf and he lived with Lawrence in his house in Soho. When Lawrence died he left all his paintings to Lane, who finished off many of them. Sadly, Lane never achieved the recognition as a great portrait painter that Lawrence achieved in his lifetime.

The other talk, which I particularly enjoyed, was Edward Richard’s talk in BSL. I can hear much better now that I have my cochlear implant, but since I became deafened four years ago, I have become much more visual. Edward signed beautifully in a very visual, descriptive way, but since I am not fluent at all, it really helped me to watch Edward signing and listen to his BSL interpreter too. This added a whole new dimension for me.

Edward talked about two of the gilded bronze sculptures on the table at the back of the Great Gallery. They were sculpted by Pietro Tacca and his son Ferdinando in Florence in c.1640-50 and were commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’Medici, who was from a very wealthy Italian dynasty.

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The models in the Wallace Collection were based on two classical Greek myths about Hercules, the Greek god. One of them shows Hercules battling with a centaur (a half man, half horse creature), who had angered him by being engaged to his lover, Deianeira, who later became his second wife and then killed him. The other one shows Hercules in a struggle with the river god Achelous, another rival for the hand of his beloved Deianeira.

Ferdinando Tacca, Pietro’s son, was also an engineer, architect and stage designer in Florence. Edward described in a very visual way how we can see the influence of theatrical design in the sculptures in the very dramatic facial features and depiction of Hercules wrestling the centaur to the ground and the contortions of the centaur’s body.

Both sculptures were bought by the 3rd Marquess of Hertford and first recorded in Dorchester House (which later became the Dorchester Hotel) in 1842.

After the talks, the Wallace Collection provided free glasses of wine for us all in the courtyard restaurant where we all had a good chat in a beautiful location. It was great to see such a diversity of deaf and hard of hearing people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying themselves.

I would like to thank Edwina, Lucy and the rest of the Wallace Collection staff for organising such a great accessible event. I hope there will be more of these events, which bring deaf people together, are informative and interesting, as well as being really good fun. Well done to the Wallace Collection!

With thanks to Michael Theobald too for providing me with the photos.