Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – What do we do with Oompa-Loompa’s? (Theatre Review)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Capitol Theatre

January to June 2019 You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Jeff Busby

Issues of race plagued Roald Dhal when he first penned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Having originally wrote Charlie as a black child, the story goes he was persuaded by his publisher to make Charlie white and therefore more appealing. The ‘black Charlie’ revelation surfaced when the first edition of the book described the Oompa-Loompa’s as African Pygmies. Roald Dhal changed the workers of Wonker’s factory to white hippie-like creatures from Loompaland. While the ‘black Charlie’ story resolved questions around Roald Dhal’s racist tendencies, two highly problematic features of the much-loved children’s story cement it as an anxiety tale spawned of white dominant culture: Representation of the Oompa-Loompas and Willy Wonker’s immutable whiteness. Versions and interpretations struggle with the nature of representation of the Oompa-Loompa’s and their relationship to their white capitalist master, who pays them in coca beans rather than money (like Grandpa Joe who was laid off from Wonker’s factory years before). No matter how you pluck and tweak at the narrative, nothing can hide ugly capitalist tendencies like local workers being fired under vague suspicion of recipe theft then replaced with a foreign Oompa-Loompa workforce, whose value lies in their ability to be exploited by Willy Wonka.

Therefore, the Oompa-Loompa’s remain a constant problem for all depictions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, including the current manifestation from Jack O’Brien (Director) that recently hit our shores. In yet another attempt to deal with an underlying exploitative tension, the children have been transformed into cross cultural icons with Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily) and his permissive mother Mrs Gloop (Octavia Barron Martin) depicted as bulging Bavarians and Veruca Salt (Karina Russell) and her father Mr Salt (Stephen Anderson) as superiority obsessed Russians. The Oompa-Loompa’s themselves are presented as a clever puppeteering exercise and are depicted in homage to the 1971 film with striking red curled hair and white suits. Their sorry history is subsumed, but unfortunately remains identifiable as a power dynamic to be a “master-slave relation.” Within each written and film text, the Oompa-Loompas have been changed, relating to historical and political context: in UK in 1964 and the US in 1971, 1973 and 2005. In 2019 we’re still trying to get it right, by paying homage to a regrettable past but attempting to eliminate exploitation by removing The Real and forging the characters as puppetry. While marvelous to watch, clever and entertaining, the puppets can’t help but draw attention to the thing they are trying to hide: the exploitation of a tall white rich man over a small brown race. Changing the color or makeup of the exploited only obscures and subsumes the obvious, while the power dynamic between Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas remains unchanged. Unfortunately depicting them as “puppets” references (again) one being controlled and manipulated by another. In this 2019 Jack O’Brien version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it seems we still can’t deal with the horrible reality of who the Oompa-Loompas are and what they represent. More tellingly, we can’t take a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without them either.

Unfortunate also, is the decision to make Willy Wonka an American, as this harkens back to the actual slavery offence that caused Roald Dhal to change the Oompa-Loompas away from African icon’s the first place. Charlie Bucket (a delightful and charming Ryan Yeates on opening night) and Grandpa Joe (an engaging, familiar and joyful Tony Sheldon) are Aussies while Willy Wonka (Paul Slade Smith) is an American who promotes the rags-to-riches mentality central to capitalist hegemony. Compassion for Charlie and his family is conditional upon him fulfilling an undisclosed set of criteria that will see Charlie ‘deserve’ or ‘not deserve’ his financial reward depending upon Willy Wonka’s capricious rules. After all, he is the Candy Man who makes the world taste good because the Candy Man thinks it should. With Paul Slade Smith in the titular role, Willy Wonka evokes an American anxiety tale within the context of globalization. The Beauregard’s (Monette McKay as Violet and Madison McKoy as her dad) and the unpleasant Teavee duo (a wonderful Harrison Riley and Jayde Westaby) offer up suitably obnoxious American stereotypes with enough humour to enjoy as does Madison Green and Todd Goddard as American television presenters.

So we are left with the dilemma that has plagued Roald Dhal since Charlie and the Chocolate Factories’ inception. It’s in the book’s DNA and just as Roald Dhal couldn’t ‘fix’ it neither, it seems, can we. The problem of what to do with beloved stories, films and other art objects that are revealed to be politically on the nose remains an unanswerable problem. For myself, I love my Roald Dhal, but I think I will shelve Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, next to my Woody Allen films and “Dude looks like a lady” by Aerosmith and get on with art that doesn’t have to play at exploitation in order to get my attention.