The return of the musical theatre version of David Walliams Billionaire Boy to London’s West End provoked much debate between my eight-year-old co-critics about this production’s merits versus RSC/Tim Minchin’s Matilda (to which they unanimously bestowed 5 stars). I shall skip to the end as the adult adjudicator: Neal Foster’s Walliams adaptation cannot touch Matilda but the very fact that two siblings on the last day of Year 4 even had the argument is a fine endorsement of the newer show’s merits indeed.
Returning to my twins’ post-mortem in a nearby pizzeria: they split along gender lines. My daughter gave Billionaire Boy 4 stars for entertainment value but pointed out that she still listens to tracks from Matilda today whereas she couldn’t really hum any of the tunes from Billionaire Boy even a few hours later. She’s right. Jak Poore’s score is just fine to keep the show going and juvenile energy maintained, but it’s neither memorable nor transcendent. The kids will enjoy it, but, as their designated grown-up, you’re more likely to tolerate than toe-tap. The same goes for the dance numbers which are amusing and goofy but also ungainly and won’t be nominated for any choreography or performance Olivier’s.
It’s worth noting, however, that this is an 8-handed multi-rolling touring production that is canny and economical with its resources and which hasn’t had the same investment as the very biggest West End musicals. As such, it will therefore set you back about half the ticket price of one of the ultra-high production-value shows like The Lion King. Billionaire Boy may not be the most memorable theatrical experience your family will ever have, but it’s a jolly and fairly-priced outing for the summer holidays in a tough year. The Garrick Theatre’s continuing Covid-safety measures are also reassuring; the seats are well-spaced and the venue’s staff and patrons both seemed conscientious.
When it comes to comedy, story and moral, my son would not be moved from his view that Billionaire Boy is superior both to the original Roald Dahl novel and the RSC musical adaptation of Matilda. He was gripped by this play’s plotlines about bullies and justice. When the story shows decency restored and the value of love above-all-else celebrated, I could see my boy was visibly relieved and gleeful even before he described his pleasure of the theatrical telling (which he did vigorously during the debrief). He voted for more than 5 stars, arguing the sense of adventure and the staging (including a scooter chase scene) were captivating and gave special praise to Irfan Damani’s shopkeeper, Raj.
Whilst I found the characters evoked the same sort of stock stereotypes that have featured in Walliams’ work since the Little Britain days, for my children the silliness and simplicity hit their funny-bones. Billionaire Boy is more children’s entertainment than family entertainment in the sense that there is no gratifying Pixar-esque second entendre. Here it is in all its simplistic tropes about the British class system and its gentle toilet humour. But never mind: a stage show about the true value of friendship and love with a central motif that gives permission to say ‘bottom’ repeatedly and the occasional experience of a stage helicopter is a junior-school crowd-pleaser. Grab your Haribo and strap yourself in: the kids will be entertained (and perhaps a tad unruly from all the bum-related comedy) but you will tolerate it and take pleasure in their joy, whether a Walliams fan or not.
Review by Mary Beer
From the award-winning West End producers of Gangsta Granny comes this amazing new production of David Walliams’ best-selling story Billionaire Boy!
Joe Spud is twelve years old and the richest boy in the country! He has his own sports car, two crocodiles as pets and £100,000 a week pocket money! But what Joe doesn’t have is a friend. So he decides to leave his posh school and start at the local comp. But things don’t go as planned for Joe and life becomes a rollercoaster as he tries to find what money can’t buy!
Following a sell-out run of Gangsta Granny at the Garrick Theatre in 2017, Birmingham Stage Company are delighted to return to the Garrick this summer with Billionaire Boy.
2 Charing Cross Road London WC2H 0HH