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Jamie Harrison - Pulling The Strings on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jamie Harrison is in the middle of the technical rehearsal for the new 
show which the co-founder of Vox Motus Theatre company has the 
wonderful job title of Puppet and Illusion Designer. As a member of the 
Magic Circle, Harrison has frequently applied his skills on such Vox 
Motus shows as Slick and The Infamous Brothers Davenport, as well as on 
the National Theatre of Scotland's version of Peter Pan. While all 
these were ambitiously realised large-scale works, the new musical 
stage version of Roald Dahl's fantastical novel, Charlie and the 
Chocolate Factory, is something else again.

Set to open in the heart of London's west end, the show is an 
international co-production between James Bond director Sam Mendes' 
Neal Street Productions, Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures and Langley 
Park Pictures. It stars Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, the eccentric 
owner of a chocolate factory who hides  five golden tickets in random 
bars which will change the lives of the children who find them forever.

While the story has been filmed  twice since it was first published in 
1964, once with Gene Wilder in 1971, then again with Johnny Depp in 
2005, this will be the first time it has been brought to life onstage. 
Mendes and co have not only enlisted the services of Harrison from 
Scotland's theatre scene, but commissioned leading Scottish playwright 
David Greig to write the book, with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman 
and Scott Wittman.

One of Harrison's main responsibilities will be to bring Willy Wonka's 
slightly creepy helpers, the Oompah Loompahs, to life. Exactly how he 
does this he can't reveal. Given that the show's technical rehearsal 
that he's in the thick of is scheduled to last a mammoth five weeks, 
one should probably expect something spectacular.

“It's an organic process,” is all he'll say.

Harrison says he owes his tenure on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 
to David Greig. It was Greig who penned the NTS version of Peter Pan, 
for which Harrison worked on the show's illusions, with particular 
focus on bringing Tinkerbell to life. Harrison's concept was one of the 
show's successes, and Greig suggested his name to Mendes and the myriad 
of producers behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Harrison worked 
on two development weeks in London, where representatives of both 
Warner Brothers and the Dahl estate were in attendance.

“Then I got a phone call,” Harrison remembers, “and was told that 'We'd 
like to firm up our commitment to you as oner of the creative team', 
and that was that.”

Suggest to Harrison that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the 
biggest thing he's done, and he's not initially convinced.

“Well, it depends on how you look at it, “ he says before pausing a 
moment. “Yes, it is,” he reconsiders. “Everyone here has won Olivier 
awards and all sorts of other awards, so the first few days were really 
quite terrifying. There are departments working on this show that I've 
never discovered before. There's a wig department, and an automation 
department, which is really important to the show, but in terms of 
resources I've never seen anything like it.”

Harrison first became interested in all things magical when, as a 
child, he damaged his knee badly enough to be confined indoors.

“One of my friend's mums bought me a magic set,” he remembers, “and I 
practiced and practiced with it. Then I went to see a magician called 
Martin Duffy, who's been active on the circuit in the north-east of 
England for more than twenty years, and at the end of the show  showed 
him some tricks.”

Such precocity paid off, and the next thing Harrison knew he was taking 
a phone call from ITV Saturday morning children's show, Gimme Five. He 
went on, performed live, and “got the bug.”

By the time he was fourteen, Harrison was performing his magic act at 
children's parties, and, aged seventeen, was contracted to tour a huge 
hotel chain in Asia for four months.

“The first two months were great,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in 
Thailand, but after four months I was tired of travelling.”

Harrison was also becoming aware of some of the limitations of his 
chosen artform in terms of other ideas he was waking up to.

“Some of the best magic can be political,” he says, “but most magic 
doesn't do that. I had things I wanted to say. I wanted to work with 
other people, and I wanted to do things that were important. I still 
love magic. At the highest level it can be utterly transcendent, but 
theatre was where I wanted to be.”

Harrison went to drama school, Where he met Candice Edmunds, and the 
idea for Vox Motus was born. Since then, the company has developed into 
one of the most stylistically inventive company's around.

“We wanted to engage with theatre as a three-dimensional space,” 
Harrison says of the Vox Motus aesthetic, “and do things that you can't 
do on television or in film. We want to explore that space, and do 
things with it, like turn a shed into all these different things. 
That's what we think is really exciting, and we can draw on magic, 
illusion or whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Harrison recently spent some time observing iconic Canadian theatre 
director Robert Lepage rehearsing with his Ex Machina company. As has 
been seen whenever he's brought his work to Scotland, Lepage is himself 
a master of illusion who works on a grand scale. Harrison  was 
particularly impressed with the fact that the company would rehearse 
with a full set and technical support from day one.

“That's something Candice and I are working towards in the long term,” 
he says. “The benefits of working like that are just enormous.”

In the meantime, Harrison has Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to 
contend with.
“It's a visual feast,” Harrison promises of the new production, “but 
it's the narrative that makes it. It's a story about a young boy who 
has nothing but love in his life, and through his own virtue he 
inherits his dream. But it's a funny thing, just talking to people 
about it, it splits the audience who they project themselves onto. Some 
project themselves onto Charlie, and there's some who empathise more 
with Wonka. But with these two beautiful characters, it's hard not to 
fall in love with them both.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 
previews from May 16th

The Herald, May 7th 2013



Lee Gunnell said…
I admire the ambition to try and pull off Willy Wonka on the stage. Don't suppose there will be a makeshift vat of chocolate for Augustus Gloop to fall into though... :-)

I look forward to it.

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