Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Sunderland Empire: What to expect from the mouthwatering musical ahead of its Wearside debut
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It’s one of Roald Dahl’s most deliciously dark tales as we follow golden ticket winner Charlie Bucket through the chocolate factory gates and into the weird and wonderful world of Willy Wonka’s pure imagination.
Both the original book and the popular films it’s spawned inspire the musical, which is a vibrant, theatrical re-imagining of the classic story that’s a veritable chocolate box of entertainment.
Donning the top hat of Willy Wonka on the first UK & Ireland tour of this West End show is Gareth Snook.
It’s a role he’s relishing and, speaking backstage at the Edinburgh Playhouse, he says he’s looking forward to whetting Wearside’s appetite for adventure this summer.
“The tour is going really well, fantastically, the response is brilliant,” said Gareth whose many West End credits include roles in The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard, My Fair Lady and more.
He added: “The children’s reaction is brilliant, sometimes they’re in the front row at curtain call literally screaming ‘Wonka, call me,’.
"The kids are loving it, as is everyone. It’s a great family show, it’s got something for everybody, from young kids up to grandparents.”
The musical features memorable songs from the iconic 1970s film including The Candy Man and Pure Imagination as well as a host of new numbers.
Gareth referenced the films when preparing to play the confectionery wizard, but he also makes sure to make the role his own.
"It’s very different from the movies, because it’s a musical theatre adaptation, but the novel is so vivid and that’s exactly what our stage show is like,” he explained.
“I remember when both the films came out, with Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, alas I’m that old. I did revisit them, but it was the adaptation and the novel that was my inspiration. The novel is essential to understanding Willy Wonka and his fantastically-complex character.
"With a character like that you just have to really make it your own, you can’t imitate those who’ve gone before. You really have to believe in him, and he’s still a character that’s evolving to this day.”
Act one of the musical is dedicated to introducing us to the golden ticket winners, from the greedy Augustus Gloop to the bratty Veruca Salt and each has their own witty theme song which breathes new life into Dahl’s gloriously obnoxious creations.
Then, of course, there’s Charlie, played on tour by a talented troupe of boys and girls.
On our visit to Edinburgh, the noble protagonist was played by Isaac Sugden who was utterly believable as the loveable hero. There’s a great chemistry between him and Wonka as he goes on a journey from the underdog who can barely afford a bar of chocolate to Wonka’s successor – and, yes, he gets to eat real chocolate on stage.
The stage management team has to hand wrap 56 bars of chocolate for the show every week and, more importantly, make sure the Golden Tickets are in the right ones.
Act two, meanwhile, takes us through the myriad of rooms in the chocolate factory, from the chocolate waterfall which leads to the downfall of the gluttonous Gloop to the Nut Room where a giant squirrel soon gets the measure of the odious Salt family.
Most of the factory is created using a giant LED screen, on both wall and floor (dress circle and above seats are recommended for the full effect), which immerses you in this fantastical world. It’s a contemporary approach which really adds to the pace and fluidity of the piece: you can almost feel the jolt of the lift as it whizzes between floors.
Then, of course, there’s Wonka’s army of Oompa Loompas. Gone are the orange faces of past versions to be replaced by cyborg-esque Oompas, giving a creepy futuristic twist to the madcap workers who don silver masks made of Gareth’s face.
“The set, particularly for act two, the chocolate factory, is extraordinary, it’s absolutely amazing, it’s very colourful and vivid,” said Gareth. “Wonka is our guide, for the families and the audience, as he takes us through all the rooms of his chocolate factory and he’s hilarious, a little bit scary at times, but not too scary.”
Charlie is inevitably the last child standing – the others made it home, don’t worry, though a little bit changed – and Gareth says the Glass Elevator scene is his favourite of the piece.
“I really enjoy the end of the show when he realises that Charlie is his successor to take over the chocolate factory,” he explains. “He starts to show a lot of compassion and tenderness towards Charlie. They go in the glass elevator and he gives him the keys to the factory – I love, love that scene.
"It has a beautiful duet in its called The View From Here where he takes him up to the stars to see the planets in his elevator. It’s magical.”
:: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The Musical will hit Sunderland Empire’s stage from Wednesday 2 – Sunday 13 August 2023. Tickets are available online at www.ATGtickets.com/sunderland