WHAT DO YOU do when you’re tasked with the staging of modern children’s classic that burst into popularity in 1964 and did not stint in saying things that were hilariously rude, flying in the face of all refined convention with some chewed chewing gum stuck behind its proverbial ear? Why, you give it the cheeky wings it warrants for the current generation of littlies, of course. And that is precisely what director Jenine Collocott has done with this version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory currently onstage at the National Children’s Theatre.
Beautifully crafted, with a set that belies the theatre’s tiny space, and gives the potent illusion of the appropriate sense of depth, height and breadth that the story necessitates, the work is bold and colourful, full of chutzpah and aggression and will sweep you – and your little one – into its oft fierce interstices that don’t pull punches in the condemnation of badly behaved beastly children and their revolting parents who sanction the beastliness.
There are some interesting pro-poor imperatives in this Dahl classic, with a colonialist edge inserted into the narrative, when it comes to the origin of the tribe of factory workers, the Oompa-Loompas. The work also boasts a happily-ever-after that digresses from that of the original novel. Indeed, in glancing at the novel itself, you notice that some of the bite, particularly of the Oompa-Loompas’ songs, is rendered anodyne in the stage adaptation.
But on the topic of the Oompa-Loompas, director Collocott magicks the young children in the cast into complete gems. Children on stage are often complicated by their very identity as children – they are not professionals and may slip into paralysis or precocity, which is their prerogative, as children. By giving them homoeopathic sized bites of stage spotlight, Collocott enables the young performers to retain and capitalise on the cute without getting carried away with themselves, which enables you, in the audience to get a sweet-enough dollop of kids without the baggage.
Further to that, the work, albeit one spotted with moments of great shoutiness, is encrusted with nuggets of rudeness that allow one to laugh at the big behind of a grown up as it allows one to celebrate the violent vanishing of a particularly annoying child: things which would be considered utter no-nos in this world of political correctness in which we exist.
Above all else, the work is magnificently cast: each of the adult performers bursts with colour: including Mli Zondi in the role of Charlie’s 96½ year old granddad Joe; the utterly fabulous NCT newcomer Yahto Kraft – as fat boy Augustus Gloop among other roles – who seems tailor-made for the madcap robust and revoltingness of Dahl’s tales; and the ever-fantastic Taryn Bennett as the deliciously awful Veruca Salt who will toss herself into a disturbing tantrum at any hint of her not being able to get what she wants. One thing you may find yourself missing in this work if you’re an NCT fan, however, is the musical theatre tradition.
But then there’s Willy Wonka. Just his very name sends sparkles of madness into the ether, and while you may think of the late Gene Wilder’s interpretation of this role in the 1971 musical film version of the work, or the 2005 version with Johnny Depp in this role, expect something completely fresh, here: Roberto Pombo embraces this role with a force of originality that brings the original Quentin Blake illustrations to extraordinary life, spiced as it is with wisdom, internal jokes and a spot of the sinister. In every articulate phrase of his you like him more but fear him a little more too, for his ability to do something completely beyond the pale.
While this review is premised on the feisty and convincing performance of Ashton Mervis in the role of Charlie and the delicious Thea Wong, Mpho Takani and Olivia Freed as the squadron of residing Oompa-Loompas, the structure of the material and the hard edges with which the play is crafted are sufficient to give you to understand that you are in safe theatrical hands here, from beginning to end, whoever plays the children, but also that the work is wild, naughty and robust enough to allow the imagination of any child in the audience to flourish.
- Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is adapted for stage by Richard George and directed by Jenine Collocott. Performed by Taryn Bennett, Ziaphora Dakile, Yahto Kraft, Zoleka Monare, Roberto Pombo, Dewald Vermeulen and Mlindeli Zondi, with an alternating child cast comprising Liam Chawasema, Sean Li and Ashton Mervis (as Charlie), and Olivia Freed, Josh Howard, Tabatha Howard, Tsholo Knepscheld, Sibongile Moyo, Kayla Plint, Olivia Rayner, Naledi Seele, Mpho Takani, Gomolemo Tsosane, Thea Wong (as the Oompa-Loompas), it features creative input by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Daniel Geddes (sound and effects) and Phillida le Roux (choreographer) and is stage managed by Jane Gosnell. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until 22 December.