I think it may have been end of year school trip night at the Palace Theatre for the Leeds Playhouse production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was teeming with big groups of kids having a great time, the patter of wrappers and chatter like an endless appreciation of the event. 

You can’t kick off about noise in the theatre when you know it’s children having a great night. We are on their time and must relax the rules and be free.    

The songs in this version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are all about making something from nothing. At the start, Charlie is at the dump finding things for his grandparents including one glove and a broken umbrella – they know they can always make something magically purposeful and uplifting from anything he collects.   

Confectionary, as always, is synonymous with greed. If we look closely at the message from the great Willy Wonka, it is this: don’t get high on your own supply. Good call, especially if chewing gum can provide a full meal. But a chocolate bar can give someone two minutes of escapism and happiness, and we all want more of that. So, it’s a paradoxical story in that success is measured by matching imagination with prudence. But that’s adult me talking.  

Charlie Bucket, played brilliantly by Haydn Court, is desperate to make things better for his family. It’s all he ever thinks about. By hoping against hope that he gets to Willy Wonka’s factory, he manages to manifest against the odds, obtaining the last golden ticket. Charlie dreams of entering the chocolate kingdom and telling Wonka of his wonderful inventions and, of course, winning a lifetime’s supply of chocolate.   

The production pays homage to Dahl’s book – dark and hilarious adults, thoughtless, privileged children, and a family with a good heart making the best of everything. Alongside this are modern touches including sign language, thoughtful representations of the Oompa Loompas, and an innovative and truly magical set design by Simon Higlett.  

When it came to the bows, the biggest cheer was for Grandpa Joe, played so tenderly by Michael D’Cruze, Charlie’s best friend and companion on the adventure. Grandpa Joe is a wise mentor who has never truly grown up, he knows when to be silly and when to care about Charlie. He is never authoritarian. And he’s ancient, like, way over 60. That magical grandparent experience. If all the kids could leave with something, wouldn’t it be nice if it was a Grandpa Joe? Also, a robust cheer echoed around auditorium when the Oompa Loompas were introduced – a robotic musical chorus of judgy dancers ridiculing the spoilt children.   

While Charlie Bucket is a great role model for children who should believe in themselves and the magic of the world, Grandpa Joe is an example for older people – kind, thoughtful and a gentle safety net for life’s disappointments. Be free for a while and maybe we can all return home with something more than just the story. 

By Cathy Crabb

Photos by Johan Persson

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Palace Theatre in Manchester until July 30, 2023. For more information, click here.