On a wet, Thursday evening, rain pelting down on the rooftops of Bloomsbury, a crowd of excited theatre-goers pour from the buildings of UCL, chatting loudly and disrupting the gloom of winter by humming a familiar tune to themselves as they spill out onto the street. There’s a tangible buzz in the air- we all seem to have been electrified by the performance of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy – a brilliantly original, energising piece that infects all with a child-like exhilaration, with jaw-dropping set pieces, enjoyably ridiculous dance numbers and several catchy tunes. It’s a show that I’ve recounted happily to friends and family many times since; still laughing at the cartoonish characters and childish jokes with a kind of joyful silliness I’d forgotten theatre could induce.
Sharp writing and quick witted one liners delivered with precise timing make for thoughtfully brilliant comedy – and Walliams’ style is laced throughout; the kind of comedy that is delightfully stupid, that tickles you into a laugh instinctively (the first song a theme tune to Joe’s dad’s success story- a loo roll company called “Bum Fresh”). There’s echoes of Roald Dahl’s influence throughout the show (and not just because of Walliams’ link with Dahl’s illustrator, Quentin Blake) in the childlike imagination of the sets, the absurd dance numbers and exaggerated characters- but most of all, in the very simple premise. A young boy whose life is turned upside down (and back again) by one, brilliant idea- and how no matter how his circumstances change, Joe’s core values of friendship, loyalty and the will to do good are held steadfast (a harder concept for us adults to understand). Despite his father’s constant efforts to communicate love with cash, Joe is unmoved- he is not corrupted by adults’ love of money, and knows what counts. It’s this moral that he clings to throughout, along with best friend Bob, until the adults are forced to come to terms with that fact that he’s right- you can’t buy love. It’s a clear, and down to earth message, and particularly with its seasonal premiere, hits home.
The cast are simply terrific – Rosie Coles deserves a special mention for being a true live-wire of a performer, bouncing off the stage with what feels like zero gravity, and contorting her body into a twisted stalk of a bully (one half of the horrid Grubb twins), a wonderfully comic bespectacled history teacher, and, best of all, a reality TV star type horror of a gold-digging girlfriend, Sapphire, whose blonde hair extensions and clacking heels seem to enter the stage long before she does. Jason Furnival’s Dad, adorned with glittering smoking jackets and gold shoes, could easily have become an unlikable character, what with his obsession with flashy extravagance, success and enjoying the perks of new money (and mountains of it) – but instead, Furnival turns him into the caring father, and at the heart of it all, a lonely middle-aged man, desperate for genuine human connection. Emma Matthews brings the dinner lady from hell to life (serving fried Blu Tack and dead rats) with gallivanting glory, and Matthew Gordon and Davy Bell (as titular role Joe and Bob respectively) were believably innocent as the show’s heart – two best friends just trying to make it through high school.
Jacqueline Trousdale’s set is simple yet gorgeously effective, with the motif of loo rolls lining the walls of every scene (be they gold plated or cardboard). A wonderful moment arrives when the loo rolls part, making way for the electric lights of a propeller, and reveals an entire helicopter floating above the stage, a grinning Mr Spud held aloft by what feels like his very own spaceship. He lands the craft onstage, and we all gape at the incredible entrance, as Joe Spud looks on in horror, utterly embarrassed (your dad dropping your homework off by helicopter is, of course, very uncool).
It’s an outrageously fun show, with fast comedy, impressive performances and hilarious direction from Neal Foster treating us to a roller-coaster of children’s theatre; an all-round, joyfully entertaining winner for both children and their respective adults, and an easy five stars.
Billionaire Boy is at Bloomsbury Theatre until 5 January 2020.