Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the stage musical adaptation of the children’s book of the same name, premiered on the West End a decade ago but only had its regional premiere last year; this new production is now touring the UK. Ahead of the musical’s arrival to Manchester, I had the pleasure of talking to Ewan Gillies, who plays Jerry.
So, you’ve just opened in Wimbledon?
E: “Yes, we opened in Wimbledon. We had a press night last night [June 22], and we started in Wimbledon the day before [June 21]. The tour has now been running since we opened in the end of November 2022 at the Leeds Playhouse. It is a Leeds Playhouse production, and we rehearsed through September/October, opened the show in November, and we played there for Christmas and New Year season. So, we are about 8 or 9 months through now.”
How does it feel at this point? Is it still exciting?
E: “Oh, absolutely! Every venue we go to is different, and everywhere you go to around the country gives you a new “Boom” from the audience because it’s fresh for them, and you feel all sorts of energies, so yeah, it’s great. I have a number of understudies as well, so I have different roles that I know, and I have performed some of them a number of times. So, it’s always good to go on for a new character and, whether you do it yourself or you watch one of your friends go on, it places new energies. It’s still quite exciting, yes.”
Sounds like you always feel a bouquet of emotions and experience.
So, you play Jerry in the show – what do you like, or don’t you like, about him? How does it feel to be him?
E: “When we first started, we explored lots of different avenues. James Brining, the director, was very generous with myself and with my co-host, Lucy Hutchison, who plays Cherry. He really wanted to see what sort of relationship we could develop between the two characters. Because, obviously, the show has been done in different forms before, and he didn’t want to replicate the same again, so he instead said, ‘Have a play, see what happens’.
“And what I have found very enjoyable, as an actor, is to be able to play with those sorts of things, and I think it’s fun to play stereotypes – silly, random characters like Jerry. He’s chauvinistic and he’s egotistical, he’s very big-headed and not very good at his job. He’s one of those characters that thinks he is the best. And playing those ridiculous sorts of ideals are fun because that is not who I am in real life. [laughing]
“We saw this sort of characters years ago, and we do still see them nowadays in day-to-day life. And I like to be able to take the ridiculous and make it comical. I hope that when people watch the character, they laugh. In a way ‘they love to hate’. They want to roll their eyes and say ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous! How can he say that?’ but laugh at the same time.”
Have you ever played someone like this character? You have about 20 years of experience onstage now so you must have a huge portfolio of roles. Are they always different? Can you remember a character similar to the one you are playing now?
E: “I think there has been a wide variety, and I’m very lucky in that sense. I have been able to either play or understudy lots of different characters. I think that keeps your brain alive, it keeps you interested, and you get to do lots of different things. When I did Soho Cinders, I was playing William George. I think he was a nastier version of Jerry, who is a toned-down, funnier version. William George was not a nice character but sometimes the evil ones are the best ones. I always say, ‘Who wants to play the charming Prince? They stand there and they look pretty. I want to be the mean one!’ I want to have fun and be ridiculous, and stupid, and silly. And I think it’s far more fun to play the evil character.”
Yes, and in the end, the audience will remember the characters who are the outliers but whom we recognise in real life.
E: “Yes, exactly. And, as I said before, it’s finding the balance of the ridiculous and evil with the fun. When I was doing Soho Cinders, I think it was the same. People rolled their eyes and laughed and said, ‘Oh, this person is the ridiculous one’. And they would hate him. That’s the best part. If you can get people to ‘love to hate’ you, it makes me very happy.”
Whenever I hear Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I picture the crazy appearance of Johnny Depp in the 2005 movie. What do you think about the movie? Does it make sense to compare the movie and the musical or are these two interpretations of the book completely different and brilliant on their own?
E: “I think it’s both. Well, my memory of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the book. And I think everyone knows that as a first reference. Secondly, I remember the original film (1971) with Gene Wilder. So, I have the Gene Wilder version in the back of my head. But I think it’s always a good thing that we reimagine stories and characters and that we can add extra layers to them or show them in a different guise. It keeps it current, and it keeps it interesting.
“Our show is very much a reimagined version of the classics, and we have stuck very loyally, in many respects, to Roald Dahl and his foundation and kept the true essence the same. James Brining, the director, has tried to show a little bit more of the darkness of Willy Wonka, for example, to give him a more rounded version. We are all a balance of good and bad, and in my opinion, he tried to show different sides of all the characters.”
Yes, because the memory of the movie which I have is that it gives you a very nice fairy-tale, a magic story, but at the same time it opens extreme sides of a human character, which we encounter in real life. And after seeing the movie, you will think about your own life and behaviour, and about your attitude towards others. Is that true regarding this show? What would be the aftertaste of it?
E: “Yes, I think a very good example is the character of Willy Wonka. He is very much in a text that he says to everyone: ‘This is the room, and I’m introducing you to this world. You can have this, and you can try this, but don’t do this, because…’
“And then you see each child comes forward and chooses what they want to do. The other children listen and behave, while one of the children will come and they will eat the chocolate and get sucked up the pipe. Or they would want to come and play with the squirrels, but he has said, “No, you have to stay away from them”. So, he is, in many respects, a moral compass, and he’s saying, “These are your options. I urge you to do this, but these are your options.” And I suppose it shows very much the choices that we make. It’s like a moral dilemma: you choose which one you want, and you have to then take consequences when they happen.”
What is your favourite song in this musical? It is rich with songs that many of us know but what’s your favourite one?
E: “My favourite song… It’s difficult, isn’t it? You won’t choose the classics. I suppose my favourite one is probably ‘The view from here’. In our version of the show, ‘The view from here’ is the song that Charlie and Willy Wonka sing when they are in the glass elevator. I think it’s beautifully written, I think it’s a gorgeous song to sing, and it feels lovely. I just think it’s melodious, and it’s the encompassment of the entire show.
“Well, we all know the story – Willy Wonka obviously chooses Charlie. But it’s that moment of realisation, in going. ‘Yes, I’m handing it all. Charlie – you are next. I’m giving it to the next generation. I have all of these different things, and I hope you choose the right one. I’m going to hand over the responsibility to the next one.’ Which is, I suppose at my age as well, a very fatherly thing to do and, as sad as it may be, I love the idea of going ‘Here you go, son’. Obviously, Charlie is not his son, but it’s the idea of a dad handing-over to a son. I love this idea so I love this song for that reason.”
I have noticed in your CV that you state that you are a highly skilled ballet dancer. How did this happen?
E: [Laughing] “I was. I mean, I’m pushing 38 now, so I wouldn’t say that I still can. You know, I’m never going to be in Matthew Bourne’s company, let’s put it this way. Even when I was in my twenties, I was never going to be in his company. But I went to ArtsEd [Arts Educational Schools[, and I was classically trained so I can do ballet. And we did a lot of jazz and tap, and, in musical theatre, we tried to cover a lot of basics – lots of different styles. I loved ballet, it was fantastic, and I got a lot of enjoyment from it. But nowadays, the legs don’t go as high, and I’m okay with that. I can watch the youngers in the company and go, ‘Yes, beautiful, oh, that’s wonderful! But I’m just going to stand here and enjoy your performance.'”
Written by Maria Plakhtieva