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.