REVIEW: BILLIONAIRE BOY (Nuffield Southampton Theatres) ★★★
David Walliams books have undoubted appeal with a young audience, having sold over 26 million copies and therefore is a natural choice for a Christmas Show alternative to pantomime for young families. NST City continues its opening season with another premiere designed to widen its audience reach by adapting Billionaire Boy for the stage as a musical revue.
The story is a simple tale of a young 12 year old Joe Spud who seeks true friendship and parental love rather than that which money can buy. His father has made a mint with Bum Fresh toilet paper, dry one side, wet the other, and is wallowing in the decadence cash can buy as “he’s’ got it all”. It is cartoonish in its characterisations, basic in its humour and perfectly targeted at its young audience.
The stand out element of this production are the lush detailed sets by Gabriella Slade which with simple additions become his home , his school and Raj’s shop while deliberately retaining the feel of a stage revue. We are reminded throughout that this is a theatre with jokes about actors pay, trip adviser reviews, front curtain monologues and silly songs about “it’s the second half of the show” and “We need an epilogue”. Indeed the theatricality feels it is trying to fill out the show for the thin plot. Director Luke Shepherd keeps the tempo high with slick changes between locations and there is some good chorography from Tom Jackson Greaves to accompany the songs. It’s entertaining and fun in a silly way that appeals to the young audience.
The music by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler (who have written for Girls Aloud and the Sugarbabes) is lively, varied and poppy in style and one or two songs stand out as hummable and memorable. Joe’s wish to be “Ordinary” and his duet of “Feeling of being in love” being amongst the best. There are some witty lyrics with political messages like “OFSTED won’t change its assessment, without a, massive investment in the local comprehensive school”. However the use of microphones for each song creates distracting moments as they are plucked from pockets, bags or boxes. It felt like work in progress, not polished like the new music in Six, and I would have liked to have seen it with a fixed band rather than the actor musicians playing on stage.
The cast work very hard doubling up on multiple occasions. We enjoyed the hilarious over the top Mrs Trafe of the school cafe played by Dean Nolan especially as he ends his dance with the splits! There is also a touching performance from Sophie Nomvete as Bob’s Mum (Gwen) who doubles as the narrator and the ridiculous Mr Peter Bread. She gives the show heart and a connection with the parents in the audience.
While the young leads do well (Ryan Heenan as Joe, Lem Knights as Bob and Eleanor Kane as Lauren), it would have been interesting to see if child actors, instead of young adults with a “wide playing range”, would have given the show the appeal of School of Rock or Matilda.
This show works for the young audience but would benefit for more development to see if it will have a fuller life in the West End, However in the meantime if you have a son, daughter, niece or nephew who loves the books you can catch this enjoyable show in Southampton. Manchester, Coventry and Cardiff.
Reviewed by Nick Wayne
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