Whenever two or three children’s authors are gathered together, they tend to start bitching about David Walliams. As a celebrity-turned-writer, Walliams knocks out books for nippers at an astonishing rate, and they tend to get plenty of publicity and retail shelf-space, and consequently they sell by the bucket-load. Now Walliams’ 2010 book Billionaire Boy has been turned into a big touring musical, currently at the Lowry, and doubtless dedicated practitioners of children’s theatre are gnashing their teeth about it.
If truth be told, Walliams’s books are often unoriginal and formulaic to the point of being samey, but there’s no denying that he can spin an entertaining Dahl-esque yarn. The premise of Billionaire Boy, in which a young lad finds himself sitting on a ton of cash, has been round the block a few times already – there’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Millions, Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire and the 1983 TV series The Boy Who Won the Pools (remember that?) just for a kick-off. Still, Walliams’ take is a fun, colourful romp in which schoolboy Joe Spud learns the hard way that having an insanely rich dad isn’t the true path to happiness. Life as an adolescent kid is bad enough as it is without your homework being delivered to school by helicopter.
The cast assembled here is hard-working and very able indeed, with Ryan Heenan making for a likeable, relatable Joe. Dean Nolan appears to be having a whale of a time in the twin roles of Joe’s bog-roll entrepreneur dad Len and school cook Mrs Trafe, whose enthusiasm far outstrips her kitchen abilities. Similarly doubling up as Len’s one-dimensional girlfriend Sapphire and Raj the shopkeeper is Avita Jay, who makes a big impact in both cases. One of the most impressive performances of the night comes from The Voice graduate Lem Knights as Joe’s loyal friend Bob.
It’s a surprisingly self-aware show, in which playful reference is made throughout to the structure, dramatic devices and that way that songs try to yank at your heart strings by shifting up a semi-tome towards the end. There’s even a song and dance routine about the interval straight after the interval.
The emphasis is very much on the music, with a whole heap of songs provided by composers Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler whose real-life pop credentials take in the Xenomania team’s big hits for Girls Aloud and The Sugababes. That accounts for the contemporary and catchy nature of the Billionaire Boy songs, which are far stronger than your average new musical.
In fact, as a whole this takes Walliams’ decent-enough-but-nothing-special book and spins it out into a highly enjoyable show. There are missteps, but they’re pretty rare. Most strikingly, at about two and a half hours it is a long night, especially for younger punters, and it probably wouldn’t suffer from being one sub-plot, a couple of songs and a half-hour shorter. After all, no-one’s turned up expecting Les Mis. The stray bits of narration are shared between the cast, whereas Raj, a touchstone character for Walliams who pops up in all his books, would seem to be an obvious choice to hold it all together as narrator from the sidelines.
The tone is slightly adult at times, too. We’re not talking sex and violence, but by way of example, much is made of the fact that Joe’s new school is under-funded and battling Ofsted which surely can’t do much for the younger members of the audience, any more than the Piers Morgan gags. Pantomime is built on this kind of pan-generational appeal but here it just feels uncertain. And shall we get into the thorny matter that wealthy, famous author Walliams is instructing us that when it comes to it, single-parent families (Northern ones in the TV adaptation, to boot) are probably better off being broke than rich and famous?
No, let’s not. Because when it comes to it Billionaire Boy‘s heart is in the right place, and this musical version serves it well, transforming into a funny, lively and highly tuneful family night out.
Billionaire Boy: The Musical, Salford Lowry, February 14 – 17, 2019