Glinting foil wrappers sparkle across the aisles. It seems at that this Sunday matinee, there’s a curiously large number of chocolate bars being unwrapped, packs of lollies being passed around and ice creams being devoured amongst the bubbling theatre audience. It’s only fitting given that any moment now the lights will dim and the long-awaited stage show of Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will unfold before theatre-goers in all its eccentric, sugary delight.
As I sit alongside my parents and two sisters, I realise just how long it’s been since I’ve thought about one of my favourite childhood stories. The most recent incarnation of Dahl’s tale I can recall is Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation. I remember as a child thinking just how unsettling, how very creepy Depp’s interpretation of the legendary chocolatier was: the enormous, purple-rimmed glasses, the shockingly alabaster complexion, the stringent voice, and of course, the not-too-subtle sadistic kick that Wonka seems to get every time a deservedly ‘naughty’ child is met with their comeuppance. And still, that’s neglecting to mention the unsettling addition of Willy Wonka’s backstory, an origin tale of a cold, loveless childhood wrought with the tyranny of a cruelly dismissive father. And, most memorable for the irony, Wonka’s father happened to be a dentist.
Gene Wilder, the original Wonka from the 1971 film, deemed Burton’s adaptation ‘an insult’. Indeed, I remember just how jarring Burton’s version seemed when I first watched it. After having repeatedly watched Wilder’s Wonka as a toddler, the almost reptilian way in which Depp portrays the confectionary mastermind unsettled me. I distinctly remember just how dissonant Depp’s interpretation of the character – and more significantly, Burton’s broader take on the entire story – first felt compared to the well-established version of the tale that was lodged in my mind. And it seemed the creative forces behind this stage show felt the same way, choosing to present Wonka as eccentric and a mischievously snarky – a Wonka akin to Wilder’s as opposed to Depp’s.
And yet, the more time that passed and the more well-acquainted I became with Burton’s film, I started to see certain things in the first film I hadn’t previously noticed. I recognised there was in fact an underlying sense of unease throughout the original film – a ‘creepiness’ that Burton only emphasised. The dizzying boat scene in which the children and their parents are guided by Wonka through the factory’s tunnel immediately comes to mind. So too does the constantly capricious, unnerving aspect of Wonka’s personality, the way you never quite know when exactly he’s being serious, whether his creations are the work of creative genius or ‘madness’. With enough time, though, these things became illuminated as aspects of the texts that had always existed. Burton, in all his quirky, Gothic grandeur, seemingly only amplified them in his version to an extent to which they couldn’t be ignored.
Similarly, as I sat in of Her Majesty’s Theatre, I couldn’t help but notice elements of the story that I previously hadn’t registered. Social commentary that I’d blissfully ignored as a child became blatantly obvious in the context of the 2019 stage adaptation.
Exerting their creative license, the producers updated the setting to depict the children’s vices through a contemporary, technologically-focused lens. Mike Teevee strolls around with his eyes glued to his iPad, spewing out ‘LOL’ and ‘WTF’ on the few occasions he talks in between his frequent grunts and eye rolls. And Violet Beauregarde is transformed into an Instagram influencer, complete with flocks of followers. Her businessman father, decked out with dollar signs for eyes, even assists in branding her as the Queen of Pop (in case you forgot about her affinity for chewing gum).
This emphasis on technology seemed to explicitly portray the characters’ vices as scathing social commentary. I immediately thought of the discourse surrounding children’s smartphone addiction, the perceived narcissism prevalent amongst young people as a result of social media, and the danger of exposing impressionable youths to violent, graphic video games. The show seems to perpetuate the long-held fear that technology somehow morphs us into mindless zombies, obsessed with nothing other than the numbers of followers we have, the amount of likes on a selfie, or the social status garnered by possessing the most recent model of the most expensive smartphone on the market. Of course, this isn’t to say that Dahl’s original tale was ever meant to be an aggressive commentary on technology’s effect upon society. Rather, this tale seems to function as a manoeuvrable platform for presenting a new, updated story relevant to various contemporary social issues.
Another thing that struck me was how certain scenes now felt uncomfortable to watch. Of course, I was much younger when I last engaged with any adaptation of Dahl’s text, and didn’t question certain aspects of it that I might have as an adult. But I can also recognise a noticeable shift in social discourse that has impacted the way people engage with media more broadly, which illuminated troubling aspects of the original text that had previously gone unnoticed by me.
Over the past decade, there’s been an increased effort challenge and correct certain problematic practices, behaviours and mentalities within society, particularly anything that could be considered racist, sexist or homophobic. This, in turn, has led to further recognition of when entertainment of any form perpetuates discrimination.
As such, it felt difficult to watch the Oompa Loompas sing and dance through, ‘Loompaland’, without squirming at the scene’s racist undertones. With the overt white saviour narrative juxtaposed against the eroticized savagery of Wonka’s ‘workers’ who are ‘paid in beans’, it’s not too difficult to make the link to slavery exploitation. I remember turning to my sister during the number, whispering that her cultural studies class would have a field day analysing this scene.
Similarly, I couldn’t help but think of the rhetoric surround ‘fatphobia’ as raucous laughter erupted when Augustus Gloop flopped oafishly on stage, his ridiculously obvious fat-suit swaying with every movement. I was taken aback for a moment; it felt bizarre to think that Gloop’s size – not to mention the lashings of cultural stereotypes embedded in all his songs and dialogue – could be so hilarious to the audience. A scene that I’d never previously seen as problematic suddenly felt somewhat questionable.
It’s not particularly crazy to think that you’ll interpret something you watched with blissful ignorance at the age of eight just a little bit differently nearly a decade and a half later. And given the original text was written in 1964, it’s unsurprising that things seem a little ‘off’ in an environment where traditionally-held mainstream views and social practices are being challenged and reformed. However, if the creators were concerned with updating this classic tale in order for to be relevant to contemporary society, perhaps it’s a little superficial to update it only at the level of what gadgets Mike Teevee is obsessed with, or to simply add in occasional references to social media. I felt that if the aim of the production was to update this beloved narrative to be more palatable to the sensibilities of the modern viewer, other aspects of the text were in far greater need of renovation. This isn’t too say that the production need be didactic; rather, updating the text only at a visual surface level only emphasises the parts of the text that lag behind. When you change the setting and timeframe of the narrative, the underlying ideological components that have failed to keep up only become more glaringly obvious.
I also found that parts of the production were a little lacklustre: sets often looked rather bare, songs often felt sparse without full chorus accompaniment, and many of the main performances often felt over-acted and slightly distracting to watch. But Paul Slade Smith was absolutely wonderful as Wonka, bringing a playful cheekiness to the character that was utterly delightful to observe.
And watching this production did remind me of why the story remains such an enduring childhood classic. The underlying morality tale, where the humble, honest and eternally kind Charlie Bucket wins the grand prize of the Wonka’s chocolate factory, beating the nasty, spoilt and ungrateful children, is always intensely satisfying. And it goes without saying, there’s all the gobstoppers, Wonka bars, flavoured-walls, edible gardens and chocolate rivers that make this text so wonderfully imaginative, so colourfully creative – and you certainly don’t have to be a kid to get a sugar high from all of that.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tickets are currently on sale until the end of December 2019.
Beth Seychell is currently studying for her undergraduate degree, majoring in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. In her spare time, she loves watching films and working on her book blog, @bethsbibliotheque. A few of her favourite things include peacocks, laksa and anything floral-printed.