Writer: David Walliams
Adaptor and Director: Neal Foster
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Since bursting into the public consciousness with Little Britain, few can be unaware of David Walliams. He is equally well known for his acting talents, charity work, foil to Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent and his children’s writing. His bestselling book so far is Gangsta Granny, the subject of a TV film adaptation broadcast over the Christmas period in 2013. And now, The Birmingham Stage Company has adapted the story for the stage, opening in the heart of Birmingham before embarking on a nationwide tour throughout 2016.
The story is told from the point of view of Ben who is 11, nearly 12, and dreams of being a plumber. The lowlight of his week is being packed off to Granny’s house on Friday evenings so that his parents, obsessed with a TV dancing programme, can pursue their own dream of becoming champion ballroom dancers and fail to hide their disappointment that Ben is not interested in getting a real job – like dancing. At Granny’s, Ben is fed a variety of cabbage-based foods and plays Scrabble in the absence of a TV set. Ben is well-mannered and, despite being bored, puts on a brave face for Granny. But all that changes when Ben discovers some hidden jewels and learns that his Granny is a retired international jewel thief. Carefully treading a moral line, the story tells us that Granny never profited from her crimes, committed them only for the “buzz” and has come to the view that stealing is wrong. Nevertheless, she has never succeeded in her dream of stealing (and returning) the Crown Jewels. Can Ben use his encyclopaedic knowledge of plumbing to help Granny pull off the crime of the century, even under the nose of Mr Parker, local neighbourhood watch supremo and busybody?
The story is almost comic-book stuff, and the characters are sketched in monochromatically – we quickly spot that most are either good – Ben, Granny, his friend, Raj the shopkeeper, and, later, the Queen – or bad – Ben’s parents, Mr Parker – despite outward appearances. But Walliams’ writing also has heart and touches on strong themes – the importance of recognising and following your dreams, the capacity for extreme loneliness even when surrounded by people, the importance of companionship. Ultimately, it is about valuing everyone as an individual and not forcing square pegs into round holes. It’s actually pretty powerful stuff laced with humour and the inevitable toilet jokes regarding the effects of cabbage on the digestion.
Ashley Cousins plays Ben, who also narrates the action. Cousins brings a maturity to Ben that most of the other characters lack. His journey from being bored to see Granny to actively seeking her company and trying to please her is well drawn. Despite just having completed his A levels in real life, Cousins is a credible 11-year-old in an accomplished performance. Gilly Tompkins is Ben’s Granny. She brings a warmth to the character as she seeks to make Ben’s visits more interesting.
Ben’s somewhat grotesque parents are played by Benedict Martin and, at this performance, Louise Bailey. Martin and Bailey bring out the characters’ innate selfishness well, as well as their epiphany as they realise what is truly important. Martin also plays the oleaginous Neighbourhood Watch supremo, Mr Parker, relishing his extreme unctuousness.
Umar Malik is perhaps underused as shopkeeper Rajbut is superb as a self-obsessed dance professional in a lovely sequence in which Ben finds himself forced into a dance competition in order to keep the peace. Malik keeps just the right side of panto in his gloriously over the top performance.
The whole is kept flowing by Neal Foster’s crisp direction, aided and abetted by the deceptively simple set from Jacqueline Trousdale. This consists of three free-standing structures that can rotate and open TARDIS-like to allow us to move quickly between locations. The dance-themed set changes are accomplished efficiently and have their own entertainment value.
The Birmingham Stage Company is committed to family theatre and goes from strength to strength with this latest offering. An audience of predominantly under-twelves at this performance positively lapped up the slapstick and toilet humour, but they will also have had their awareness raised that everyone is valuable and everyone has a story.
Runs until12 December 2015| Image: Mark Douet