Sam Mendes musical hits the sweet spot

Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Four stars

“I CAN’T explain it I just need to eat some candy,” squealed a delirious young American girl to her parents as we left the auditorium after Sam Mendes’ new adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Such is the effect of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory on children. I remember reading it as an 8 year old, my mouth watering at endless descriptions of chocolate waterfalls, mint choc chip grass and cotton-candy sheep.

For an imaginative director, Wonka’s factory must be just as tantalising a prospect. Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) certainly looks like he’s having fun once he gets inside. The second half of the show – set entirely within the walls of the factory – is a riotous succession of whacky machines and bizarre dance-routines conducted by ringmaster-cum-tour guide Wonka.

Douglas Hodge is as close to perfect as you could hope to get as the oddball chocolatier: funny, unhinged, ever so slightly scary.

The only problem is the entire Wonka-less first half of the musical. Set in the tiny dilapidated house that that Charlie Bucket and his starving family call home, there isn't a single memorable song to light up all the monochrome poverty. For Charlie, a lively imagination provides an escape from the drudgery of his daily life. Mendes conveys this by placing him in a chair for much of the first act, stairing wistfully off into space. Sweet, but not particularly exciting.

However, the second half is so much fun – thanks in no small part to the dancing oompa loompas – that all is forgiven by the end. Be sure to get your golden ticket.