Review: Billionaire Boy (NST City)
David Walliams' hit book is adapted for Nuffield Southampton by Jon Brittain
It's quite something to see the stir caused by David Walliams' arrival among the younger audience members at opening night of Billionaire Boy. Kids plainly adore him, hence his books sales sailing to astronomical heights, and based on Nuffield Southampton Theatres' brand new musical version of his 2016 children's novel, they're quite right to. It has its flaws, but Jon Brittain's adaptation and Luke Sheppard's energetic staging easily manage to make ends meet. And then some.
Brittain's book faithfully follows Walliams' original. Joe is the son of toilet roll tycoon Len Spud. He's filthy, filthy rich, but friendless. So he quits his posho private school for the local comp, where savage bullies and strict teachers give him a crash course in life as an ordinary boy. Slowly, though, the tendrils of his bog-roll billionaire father's fortunes sneak their way into his high school as well.
The skinny-jeaned among us might raise a few flags over the story's treatment of wealth and the wealthy, and it's true that Billionaire Boy treads a tightrope between emphasising that money isn't everything (fine), and accepting that poverty is a part of modern life (not fine). But there is so much good stuff here, so many life lessons that any radical reservations can be put on the back burner.
Lessons like the need for caring, open and honest friendships, particularly between men. Like how money can corrupt relationships, rather than reinforce them. There are even little political nuggets, on how cash-strapped schools can't afford to educate their pupils properly, and how the super-rich see tax as an optional evil. Important stuff for impressionable audience members.
Musical numbers come from Nick Coler and Miranda Cooper (who wrote "Sound of the Underground!" Girls Aloud's 2002 chart-topping club banger). They're a mixed bag, truth be told. Some are instantly forgettable, straightforward pop slop, but some stick around afterwards, not least the furiously foot-stomping opening/closing number, and a wonderfully upbeat duet between Joe and his high-school crush.
It's the same story when it comes to casting, too. Dean Nolan is excellent as both Joe's vulgar, rags-to-riches dad and Mrs Trafe, the dastardly school dinner lady. There are lovely turns too from Eleanor Kane (excellent in Fun Home, excellent here) as love interest Lauren, and from Avita Jay as Raj, Joe's cheery cornershop council.
Ryan Heenan, though, doesn't quite have the charisma to pull off the central part. He sings well enough, and has a chirpy schoolboy charm, but his performance is too contained and too careful to cut-through in a show this carefree.
The show's star turns, though, come from director Sheppard and choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves, who marshal proceedings with infectious, unflagging enthusiasm. Everything is bouncing and bubbly throughout, and Gabriella Slade's sliding, unfolding set provides the perfect platform for their panache.
Walliams himself got on stage come the curtain and declared the show a smash-hit. He's probably right.