BILLIONAIRE BOY The Musical
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th February, 2019
The children’s books of David Walliams have filled the gap left by Roald Dahl. They are child-centred stories, with outlandish events and grotesque characters – usually the adults, save for one or two sympathetically presented ones. Billionaire Boy the Musical fits this mould exactly, telling the story of young Joe Spud, son of toilet-paper innovator Len, one of the richest men in the world. For all his riches, Joe is unhappy. He wants friends and so opts to go to the local comprehensive to make some. It’s not long, of course, before his money gets in the way.
As Joe, Ryan Heenan is an appealing figure, boyish and with a superb singing voice that suits the rock and pop sensibilities of the score. The songs (by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler, with lyrics by Jon Brittain) are without exception catchy, with witty lyrics and in a range of styles. Dean Nolan is great as the crass nouveau riche Len but seems to have the most fun as a disgusting dinner lady (imagine Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull let loose in a school kitchen!) Bringing out Len’s paternal side is the mighty Sophia Nomvete as Gwen, the Mum of Joe’s new friend Bob. Nomvete has remarkable presence, whether she’s narrating, playing Gwen, or a more exaggerated character like the school teacher.
Lem Knights is great fun as Bob, bringing physical humour and also sensitivity to the role, while Eleanor Kane’s Lauren is cute and energetic without being too girly. Jared Leathwood and Natalie Morgan gurn and growl as school bullies, the Grubbs. (Cast members also play musical instruments, augmenting the upstage band)
Special mention to Avita Jay, doubling as Len’s gold-digging model girlfriend Sapphire Stone and as shopkeeper Raj (a staple of Walliams’s books) working the audience and doing a lot of the frame-breaking. This is a show that establishes a rapport with the audience without going full-on panto. We are included in everything and somehow the overt theatricality of the piece draws us in rather than alienating us in a Brechtian fashion.
It’s a funny and engaging production. Director Luke Sheppard keeps everything lively so when the moments of pathos come, they are all the more touching. There’s a wealth of talent at work here in a show rich with comedy, infectious tunes and a moral, which is perhaps obvious but is not hammered home.
Working with Nuffield Southampton Theatres, the Belgrade has struck it rich with this vibrant new musical. I loved every minute.
Golden boys Ryan Heenan as Joe and Lem Knights as Bob (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Leave a comment | tags: Avita Jay, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Billionaire Boy, David Walliams, Dean Nolan, Eleanor Kane, Jared Leathwood, Jon Brittain, Lem Knights, Luke Sheppard, Miranda Cooper, Natalie Morgan, Nick Coler, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, review, Ryan Heenan, Sophia Nomvete | posted in Review, Theatre Review
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th February, 2018
Emma Rice’s adaptation of the Noel Coward script makes a triumphant return to the REPa decade since its first incarnation. Trimmed down to a jam-packed 90 minutes, this new production is a roller-coaster of theatrical invention and charm. The illicit, irresistible romance of central couple Alec and Laura plays out in a crazy, stylised world in which the other (working class) characters act as a kind of chorus, their own uncomplicated love lives contrasting with the restraint and guilt of the protagonists. It strikes me, this time around, how much the elements play a part in the telling of this story: air, fire and water are particularly prevalent, in the wind that blows through the station, and water in the waves of emotion that wash over the scenes… A fire is present and the earth, is represented I suppose, by the stacks of coal to one side. The most elemental force in play though is Love.
Jim Sturgeon is every inch the English gent as Dr Alec Harvey, going against type to express his feelings. He is matched by guilt-ridden Isabel Pollen’s Laura. It’s all ‘teddibly, teddibly’ in its stuffiness but the emotions come up fresh and relatable. They are surrounded by supporting players (sometimes, physically supporting!) with old-fashioned accents – the show strongly presents a bygone age: the romance of steam locomotion, when brandy was thruppence a glass, when middle class morals defined action… Propriety has given way to political correctness in society – and this is not a bad thing, but this quaintly English piece (English in its humour, its tea-drinking) is deliberately skewed away from the naturalistic. The world was never like this, so don’t get too nostalgic for what didn’t exist.
Beverly Rudd absolutely shines as café girl Beryl, among other roles, and Lucy Thackeray’s Mrs Baggott is a remarkable characterisation and no mistake. Dean Nolan, who also doubles as Laura’s becardiganed husband, is a lot of fun as railway worker Albert, while Jos Slovick’s Stanley leads the singing, his voice at odds with his silly hat.
This being a Kneehigh show, there is live music almost throughout, played by the cast and a complement of musicians. A few Noel Coward numbers are included, because it’s not just about the brilliance of Emma Rice, you know. The production reminds us of Rice’s skills and insights as a director. There is much playful sophistication behind her ideas: Alec and Laura swooning in love, rising on chandeliers, the splash of water as they each tumble into a river, the puppet children being beastly to each other… The show bursts with ideas we appreciate on an emotional as well as analytical level. The form delivers the content in a symbolic, stylised manner enabling us to engage emotionally, rather than keep us distant through theatrical alienation.
Exhilarating entertainment that reminds us why we fell in love with theatre in the first place, this is an all-too brief encounter with brilliance and a ride you don’t want to miss.
Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon getting a bit carried away
Leave a comment | tags: Beverly Rudd, Brief Encounter, Dean Nolan, Emma Rice, Isabel Pollen, Jim Sturgeon, Jos Slovick, Lucy Thackeray, Noel Coward, review, The REP Birmingham | posted in Theatre Review
STEPTOE AND SON
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012
I had a problem with this one before going in: I’ve never been much of a fan of the source material, but I hoped director and adaptor Emma Rice would be able to work a bit of Kneehigh magic on me and win me over.
In brief: she couldn’t.
Rice has selected four scripts by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson and has presented them here as a unified piece of theatre. The dialogue seems intact – the setting has been modified. The set consists mainly of a large cube that represents the rag and bone cart by means of which the characters earn a business and also their living quarters and the gates to their junkyard. It is reminiscent of a pageant wagon and reminded me of the brilliant Oddsocks Productions and their ingenious use of such a property.
Transitions between scenes involve the cast of three dancing, singing or lip-synching to popular music of the day. There are also musical sequences in which, through movement and song lyrics, the characters reveal their inner life. These are the best bits. I wanted more of these.
I was pleased to find that the cast do not seek to imitate original actors Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble. This pair has a West Country burr to their voices (Kneehigh is based in Cornwall) and they bring their own interpretations to the characters. Kneehigh veteran Mike Shepherd is the irascible Harold Steptoe, a ‘dirty old man’, lonely and in need of constant attention. Dean Nolan is son Harold, whose aspirations and pretensions are thwarted and punctured at every turn by the machinations and manipulations of his father. This is one of the more hellish situations from sit-com history. The rules of sit-com dictate that by the end of the episode, the status quo will be restored, so that the wrangling and the suffering can continue from scratch next time. On the telly, on a week by week basis, this works very well. In a two-hour stretch in a theatre…not so much. Like watching a DVD box set – soon all the episodes blur into one.
A theatre piece needs to build and grow to keep us interested. The plot needs to develop and the characters need to grow. Here, every 25 minutes, they return to their default setting and nothing has changed. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of the sit-com world. Their existentialist angst is dictated by the situation they are trapped in. Harold is eternally claiming he will move out and start a life of his own while he’s still young. He never does.
The fourth section adds a neat twist to round things off. This time, Albert is threatening to break free by announcing his engagement to a widow. Harold becomes defensive and tries to dissuade the old man. A role reversal that has more to do with desperation than anything else.
Shepherd’s Albert is an energetic moaner, giving the lie to his supposed lack of health. He topples easily to the floor at the merest mention of his war-wounded leg, and clambers up to the roof of the wagon like an energised monkey. Nolan’s Harold also has impressive physicality, and a kind of grace to his movements. He’s a large fellow but he can’t half dance – even performing the splits at one point. The female roles, such as they are, are all performed by Kirsty Woodward in a range of wigs and period outfits. In the end, I found it was the charm of the performers that kept me watching and enjoying, rather than the script or the interpretation.
Like Vladimir and Estragon, these characters do not move. In any sense of the word. I think I was missing the customary sense of enchantment Kneehigh usually brings.
Leave a comment | tags: Dean Nolan, Emma Rice, Galton & SImpson, Kirsty Woodward, Kneehigh, Mike Shepherd, review, Steptoe and Son, Warwick Arts Centre | posted in Theatre Review