Writer: David Walliams
Adaptor and Director: Neal Foster
The Birmingham Stage Company has a 29-year track record of developing children’s theatre for the stage. This particular production was deservedly nominated for an Olivier award.
This beautifully designed show has been very sympathetically adapted from David Walliams’ book. Jacqueline Trousdale’s set is almost like a pop-up book: it is multi-functional and cleverly reveals intricate and detailed sets at the mere pull of a handle by members of the ensemble cast, for example, the popping out of the beds and sofas or the revealing of Raj’s shop. This economical use of the set really helps the pace of the show, which is pitched perfectly for its young audience. In addition, the wings are used brilliantly as actors windmill and slalom to create constant movement. Granny’s mobility scooter is an excellent example of this as it whizzes back and forth in and around the set via the wings. This conveys the distance of travel and makes quite a simple feature of the scene really intricate and interesting.
The show centres around Ben (Justin Davies) and his relationship with his grandmother (Isabel Ford). Davies expertly portrays the innocence of 11-year-old Ben and has a wonderful command of his own physicality within the role. His energy and comic timing are brilliant to watch. In particular, the sequences where he is a passenger on his Granny’s mobility scooter really land well with the audience. A scene in which Ben’s parents have forced him to enter a dance competition is a comical highlight of the show. We see Ben break out a selection of dance moves ranging from Thriller to the robot to a unanimous judges’ score of zero. His delivery within this scene is expertly timed and received with enthusiastic participation from the young audience.
Isabel Ford plays the titular character to perfection. Her physicality in the characterisation of Granny is brilliant from the walk to the slumped posture to the shaking of the voice: she really nails this part. Of course, the true comedy experts within the audience (the children) will tell you that the fart jokes are the ones that are best received. Granny hilariously lets out a fart every five or six words due to her excessive cabbage consumption. The chemistry on stage between Ford and Davies is lovely to watch. The arc of their story from the reluctant sleepover at the beginning to the high stakes jewel heist at the end is played out beautifully.
On this occasion, the parts of Dad and Mr Parker were covered by Ben Martin. The vocal qualities that he brings to the roles are superb, particularly in his portrayal of Mr Parker in which his attention to detail is excellent: from the pointed toes to the sneering and leering in each scene, Martin brings more than a passing reference to Mr Bean to this character. His portrayal of Dad is very earnest and he creates very obvious physical differences between the two parts.
Strictly-obsessed Mum is portrayed by Jess Nesling who does a brilliant job. She also doubles as the Queen in the climax of the show. Indeed, her Christmas speech scene is met with resounding laughter as it climaxes with a literal dancing queen who encourages the rest of the cast, and indeed the children in the audience, to join in.
Another notable performance comes from Irfan Damani, particularly in his portrayal of Flavio the ex-Strictly champion. His charismatic delivery truly whips up the crowd and builds a panto atmosphere within the auditorium. He enthrals the children in the audience with his slapstick delivery within the dance competition scene. His portrayal of Raj, who is a feature of all of Walliams’ stories, is also very strong. Raj always seems to hold the moral compass within a Walliams story and it is he that tells Ben to take the time to get to know his Granny because she might be more interesting than he first thought. Of course, he is proven to be correct over the course of the narrative.
Overall, this is an excellent piece of children’s theatre that has been thoughtfully put together in a way that doesn’t patronise its audience. The rich variety of theatrical conventions used within the staging of this show make for a thoroughly entertaining night out for the whole family.
Runs until 6 November 2021 and touring