Writer: David Walliams
Adaptor/Director: Neal Foster
Recently nominated for Best Family Show, at the upcoming Olivier’s,Billionaire Boy,(David Walliams’ third children’s book adapted for the stage) is back on tour courtesy of Birmingham Stage Company and this week it’s at Manchester’s glorious Palace Theatre, ready to play to the masses.
As the opening night house lights dim, the audience, made up of predominantly under 12’s, comes to a complete standstill as the story begins. Okay… there is still a cacophony of kids rustling sweet wrappers underscoring the on-stage action throughout, but we’ll let them off. They’re excited… it’s a school night and they’re up late to go to the theatre! But apart from this, you could hear a pin drop – which lays testimony to the energetic storytelling from the multi-rolling cast on stage.
We’re quickly introduced to titular character: “Billionaire Boy”, otherwise known as Joe Spud (Matthew Gordon) who at the age of just twelve, lives up to his nick-namesake as the UK’s richest boy, all thanks to his Dad’s booming loo-roll business “Bum fresh” (cue an onslaught of toilet humour jokes welcomed by the minors in the audience). With his own sports car, two pet crocodiles, and a £100,000 a week pocket money allowance, you would assume Joe would want for nothing, however, there is one special thing missing… he doesn’t have a friend. So, he quickly hatches a plan to leave his “posh school” behind and start at the local comprehensive in a quest to find a best mate. However, our protagonist’s mastermind plan doesn’t quite work out and life quickly becomes a tricky rollercoaster ride as he searches for something money can’t buy.
Taking us from page to stage as both adaptor and director is Neal Foster, who makes this piece a brilliant way to introduce children to live theatre, displaying how their favourite literature can translate to take life on stage! It’s jam-packed with silliness, theatricality and just the right amount of pathos, sealed with a heart-warmingly feel-good message, that will hopefully resonate with young audiences up and down the country. And despite packing a fable-like moral, it always prioritises fun, remaining entertaining and never transcends into preachy mode.
Matthew Gordon as Joe Spud navigates the tale with ease and shares great chemistry with Jake Lomas as loyal best friend Bob. Both capture the story’s energetic highs and turbulent lows with gusto and vulnerability respectively. The zany multirolling throughout is mastered best by Emma Matthews, whose characterisation in every role is hilarious. She provides a feast of impeccable accents and contrasting physicalities. Her comedic timing; spot on. Each character she plays is thoroughly lived in, especially her dodgy dinner lady Mrs Trafe, who completely steals the show, providing a perfect blend of over-the-top caricature and credible authenticity!
Original songs composed by Jak Poore are a welcomed feature, aiding the narrative by adding extra layers to each of the characters, allowing them to solidify their place in the story. Jacqueline Trousdale’s set balances practicality and imagination; the playground castle of toilet roll and flashing neon helicopter flight a particular highlight. There are cupboards and doorways in every nook and cranny, which fittingly open like the pages of a book being turned, revealing which location we arrive at next. Nia Evans’ costume design grounds the production, reminding us of the modern-day reality, adding to the important life lessons to be learnt.
Most of the scenes segue smoothly into the next, keeping the audience hooked, however, one or two transitions are a little clunky and could use some tightening to keep up the rhythmic pace the actors work hard to set. From the script’s vivacious vocabulary, it’s clear Walliams has taken inspiration from his children’s-lit-champion predecessor Roald Dahl, however some of the more figurative, tongue-twisty dialogue featured throughout is unfortunately lost in the void, (particularly in the musical numbers) largely due to poor sound quality which can hopefully be fixed before the rest of the run.
It’s fun and fictitious frolicking and even the adults can’t help but smile and feel invested in this story.
Running until 12th March 2022 and continues on tour.