Writer: David Walliams
Adaptor/Director: Neal Foster
Joe Spud has everything money can buy that a 12-year-old could wish for: we first meet him racing against the computer on a massive screen in a video game. Four years ago, Joe’s dad, Len, was wrapping toilet rolls at the factory when he had a brilliant idea for a better loo roll – and so Bumfresh was born. Bumfresh is so revolutionary that Len is soon the richest man in Britain and Joe the richest boy. But can money buy you happiness? Can it solve all your problems? Can it buy you the one thing Joe craves, a friend?
It’s probably not a spoiler to suggest that the answer to those questions is not an unqualified ‘yes’. Joe is miserable and bullied at his exclusive public school for being nouveau riche – especially given the source of his riches. So he switches to the local comp hoping to keep his secret and be treated like anyone else. Once there, he meets Bob. They immediately hit it off, but can friendships survive secrets?
In common with David Walliams’ other writing, Billionaire Boy has a moral at its centre: people are more important than money, and the story is about as subtle as a housebrick as it delivers that message. Aside from Joe and Bob, the characters are two-dimensional stereotypes with their motives writ large for the audience – the bullies who pick on Bob are incorrigibly evil and stupid, for example. And even the youngest audience member must be able to see through the gold-digging motives of Sapphire as she woos Len and presents him with a list of demands that make those in Santa, Baby seem positively parsimonious by comparison. And for most of the characters and the target audience, this is fine, with children positively lapping up the bum jokes and laughing in recognition as the schoolteachers reel out their cliches (‘Walk Don’t Run’, ‘It’s not my time you’re wasting’) in a positively hilarious and well-observed song. But there is a problem: there is no room for diversity in this story. The central characters have names that wouldn’t be out of place in an Enid Blyton story fixing them firmly in the audience’s consciousness and, as in the book, the sole non-white character is Raj, the very stereotype shopkeeper promising ludicrous special offers in a cod Indian accent. The character performs a positive role as he befriends Joe and his friends and dishes out life advice, but what sticks in the memory is the comedy-Asian-shopkeeper shtick.
At the centre are Matthew Gordon and Jake Lomas as Joe and Bob respectively. Both socially inept, their bond is believable and the ups-and-downs of their putative friendship relatable. The underlying warmth of their friendship is what shines through both performances, even as Joe inadvertently upsets his friend. Matthew Mellalieu as Len demonstrates Len’s difficulty coping with sudden riches well, and his juvenile desire to impress the greedy Sapphire is well brought out. Sapphire is brought to us by Rosie Coles, whose tight skirts and loud voice mark her out. Coles really brings out the comedy in Sapphire as she totters on her heels and shrieks in her stereotypically working-class accent. In musical numbers she displays a fine voice, too. While Matthew Chase is undoubtedly cool as Jayden, he also demonstrates a superb singing voice.
Designer Jacqueline Trousdale has provided an ingenious set that hinges and turns to provide all the settings – including a memorable helicopter that elicits gasps from the youngsters as Len runs an errand. The direction and choreography are slick and the songs funny, if not especially memorable.
There’s much to commend in Billionaire Boy. The story, while simple, has a strong message that won’t be lost on its target audience. There are decent performances throughout and a happy, if bittersweet, ending. And, of course, no shortage of bum jokes!
Runs Until 5 June 2022 and on tour