Writer: David Walliams
Adaptor and Director: Neal Foster
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Have you ever wanted to do something so incredibly bad in your life … just once? Just to see if you could? Have you ever wondered if there’s something more to your Granny than knitting and Murray mints? And, if you were 11, do you think that you could get away with the heist of the century … with your Nan? Birmingham Stage Company’s mammoth touring production of David Walliams’ smash children’s book is silly and a lot of fun. And has a surprising moral message at its heart.
EveryFridaynight, Ben is packed off to Granny’s house while his selfish parents indulge their love of all things ballroom and Strictly Come Dancing. Spending time with Granny is the definition of boredom. Knitted jumpers, spitting on hankies and Scrabble might just be about bearable, but a diet consisting entirely of cabbage is just too much. Even worse, are the effects all this cabbage eating has on his flatulent grandparent.Fridaynights are the worst night of the week – until Ben discovers her secret. Shining and glistening in a biscuit tin on the top shelf in the kitchen are a wealth of jewels and Granny must confess. Mobility scooter riding, cabbage devouring Granny has actually led a life of crime. She may call herself The Black Cat, but to Ben, she is his newly crowned, wonderfully exciting, Gangsta Granny.
Relishing the title role with gusto, Gilly Tomkins can play the sweet little old, grey-haired lady one minute and whirlwind international jewel thief the next. Hiding more and more of the truth throughout the story, we are aware that her health is failing and are kept guessing to the last just as to how much truth is behind her ‘Black Cat’ antics. Her new found grandson admirer and apprentice partner in crime, Ben (Ashley Cousins), hatch a plan to steal the Crown Jewels in The Tower of London. Distracted by the glitz and glamour of ballroom and impervious to the whole affair are Mum and Dad, played deliciously over the top by Louise Bailey and Benedict Martin. Wrapped up in their own bubble and busy(ish) lives they have no interest in Granny and her not so delicious cabbage-smelling house.
With a whole theatre full of children who have read David Walliams’ books, it is impossible not to make connections with the stories of Roald Dahl in his centenary year. Lending to the popularity of this tale,are his trademark cross-generational friendships, larger than life, mischievous characters, and a thrilling adventure. Adaptor and director Neal Fostersucceeds in bringing all of these qualities from page to stage in the two-hour playing time. A little long-winded in places, the story veers off into a sub plot involving Ben being mistakenly entered into a ballroom dancing competition. Although fine in the book, it does somewhat slow down the adventure. That said, there is a scene with great pay-off as left-footed Ben must improvise a solo ballroom dance for the under-12’s final.
Despite the fun, Walliams and company impart throughout the play an important and heavy message. For Ben, we witness an uplift in his self-esteem and self-belief. But on a much more heavy-handed note, is the neglect of the elderly. As Granny’s son, Ben’s father, says with false self-assurance “I took her to the garden centre once”. For all of the productions inventiveness and Jacqueline Trousdale’s twirling sets that fold in and out to produce various sets, Gansta Granny is a story that is difficult to deliver onstage. Despite dream and flashback sequences that inject some theatricality into the medium, it is difficult to see why the book belongs onstage, other than its obvious enormous ticket appeal.
However, in a society with longer and longer working hours meaning more and more grandparents are becoming the primary care givers to children it is easy to see why this story is appealing to the old and the young.
Runs until 4 August 2016 | Image: Contributed