We sat down with West End star Gareth Snook ahead of him opening the beloved chocolate factory gates in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this December.
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is a story that has been passed down for many generations since the book was first published by Roald Dahl in 1964. The beloved 1971 film adaptation is responsible for bringing many families across the globe together each Christmas and has no doubt remained a staple holiday viewing to this day.
As ashamed as I am to admit it, I actually didn’t grow up watching the Gene Wilder film, I grew up watching Tim Burton’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory with an unrecognisable Johnny Depp starring as Willy Wonka. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a film as eerie, chilling and grim could ever be associated with a musical theatre show until The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre announced its Christmas spectacular.
A few months ago, on a warm summer’s day, I hopped on the train and made my way to the annual Bloom extravaganza located in the depths of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. I went old school with my questions written on a little sheet of paper and prepared myself to meet the man himself, Mr Willy Wonka.
West End star Gareth Snook is sporting the top hat and cane in the current UK and Ireland tour of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory The Musical and when I arrived, I was immediately greeted by him in his full Wonka-attire. He has a mischievous grin that I have since immediately associated with him. Gareth’s persona is almost similar to Willy Wonka’s with his warm, kind and genuine demeanour.
We sat in a bite-sized tent laced with large cardboard cutouts of Wonka chocolate bars and golden tickets, and as the sound of the footsteps outside passed us by, two strangers, musical theatre enthusiasts and creatives, indulged in a conversation all about this magical production.
Did you grow up watching the original Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory film?
Well, I’m old enough to have seen the Gene Wilder one. I’m a big fan of Gene Wilder. I was there when it first came out. It must have been in the cinema and I’ve seen it several times since the one with Johnny Depp came out but Gene Wilder, I think he’s the closest to the Willy Wonka I know. He’s closer to the novel than Johnny Depp because, in the Johnny Depp movie, they put in the backstory of his father being a dentist.
The thing about Willy Wonka is that you have to make him your own, it’s the only way it works, particularly on stage, because you’ve got to connect with your audience. The audience have got to be on your side from the word go because he’s unpredictable.
He’s a little bit crazy and in our version, he’s locked himself and the factory doors up for forty years. I think in the novel, it’s about ten years, but we’ve made it forty, so when the golden ticket winners come, his social skills are a little bit skewed, so, you know, you have to forgive him a little bit for that.
It’s my job to protect him as an actor because, I mean, I’ve fallen in love with him. I will not have him misunderstood and misinterpreted, which he is. A lot of people think they know the story and Willy Wonka, and they don’t really, you know, because they have a memory of it, which sometimes isn’t quite accurate.
He doesn’t victimise the children; they put themselves into dangerous situations. He warns them, he says, “Don’t go near the chocolate waterfall”, “Don’t touch the squirrels,” and they don’t listen to him.
People think that it’s him that’s doing it but it’s not. It’s just bad parenting and spoiled kids.
Then, when he’s ended up with Charlie, he doesn’t even look at Charlie throughout the whole of the second half. He didn’t even notice him virtually because, well, one child is left, and he’s looking for somebody to take over his factory, and he’s ended up with Charlie and he thinks, “Oh my god… It can’t be him” and then the scenes that follow are beautiful because he realises he just sees himself in Charlie.
It’s a beautiful moment and then he takes him up in the elevator and gives him the keys to the factory.
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Is that how you have moulded your own portrayal of Willy Wonka?
Well, I think so. I think that’s the true Willy Wonka, that compassionate man. The other crazy stuff, he’s just cheeky and he just doesn’t tolerate the parents at all because I think he relates to children much better than adults, and he wants to have fun.
If you don’t laugh and smile, what’s the point? I think he’s that kind of a guy, and I’m a little bit like that. I’m very cheeky with the role. He’s arrogant but also, it’s his factory… If you don’t like it, then go.
At one point, he says, “Why the long faces? Does anyone want to go home?” And nobody says anything, so he says, “That’s the spirit! Now come along then!”
Have you brought parts of yourself into him?
Our director said, “The thing is Gareth, I don’t know where Wonka starts and you begin”, but you’ve got to make him your own as Gene Wilder did, as Johnny Depp did, as anybody else has played Willy Wonka in the musical has. There’s only one way of doing it and that’s to bring yourself into it.
I suppose that goes for any character, but more so with Willy Wonka because he’s got to get the audience on his side. He’s like a guide to lead the audience through the chocolate factory and all the different rooms, as well as the families. The audience are part of the group that he leads through the various rooms, and he’s gonna have a bit of fun with them, you know?
Is there a particular moment that you look forward to in every single performance?
Yes, there are loads of moments that I look forward to because, as an actor, to get huge laughs on stage, it’s like a drug, so I do love those moments where I share directly with the audience and they can relax with Wonka then if they find him funny, lovable and naughty, and a little bit eccentric. They can get on board with him and that’s really important that they do because if they just look at you and they go, “I don’t want to engage with you”, then it’s all over.
I’ll stick things in, take things out and manipulate it according to how I feel or how the audience is responding. That’s one thing I’m allowed to do: play with him and have some fun.
If you had your own chocolate factory, what would your signature candy be?
When it comes to chocolate, I’m a massive chocolate fan but I’ve got to be so careful because they can’t keep altering the waistline in those trousers too much. I’ve got to think of the wardrobe department but I’m really simple with chocolate: mint or orange. People have sent me mint and orange chocolate through the post and the stage door. Keep that in mind… Tell your readers!
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Why do you think people should come and see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical this Christmas?
It’s a timeless show and there is literally something for everybody. From tiny, tiny kids right up to grandparents. It’s a proper family show and the show is a show of two halves so the first half is we get to know the Bucket family and they’re all poor and sad and it’s very touching and you get introduced to the golden ticket winners and then Wonka at the end of Act I just BOOM! explodes through the factory gates, sings this five-minute number, which is just WOW!
Then, the second opens as it is a feast for the eyes. The colour and the stage are spectacular, and all these different rooms that he goes through, it’s wonderful. At the end of the day, it’s funny and really not sad, but moving at the end, so you know, if the audience leaves with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye, then job done!
What are you most excited about bringing the show to Dublin?
Oh my goodness, well, I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction of the people because I understand from people who have been involved in previous productions that the audiences are fantastic.
I am so excited and so genuinely excited about exploring the city as well because I don’t know it. I’m staying here for Christmas as well because we’ve got three days off but airports, etc., and just anytime I do this show, I need to lie down and relax, so the last thing I want to do is go through airports!
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory The Musical will be enchanting audiences in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from December 5 to January 7. For more information about the show and where to purchase tickets, be sure to check out this link.
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