On the 26th of February I went to see the musical adaptation of David Walliams’ 2010 hit novel ‘Billionaire Boy’ at the New Theatre in Cardiff. I had initially read the book when it came out and remember thoroughly enjoying it and while I haven’t read it since, this new musical seems to be a fair adaptation. The play starred Ryan Heenan as Joe Spud, a child whose father became an overnight success with his brand of toilet paper earning him and his son billions of pounds. The play follows an almost beat-by-beat retelling of the children’s book and after watching it I think it’s clear that this isn’t a show aimed at my demographic.
Firstly, I have to commend the show on the fantastic production design. For a small British musical it was very surprising to see how grand the sets felt. From large metal walls that took up the width of the stage to a couch made out of hundreds of £5 and £10 notes it was astounding just how the much they could show. Furthermore, because of how sweeping the sets were it lead to one of the funniest moments in the show involving a helicopter. I won’t ruin it but I’ll just say it’ll definitely leave you amused.
Another factor I admired was the clear enjoyment all the cast and crew seemed to be having. Whenever there’s a song, dance number or even a simple exchange of dialogue there is a clear aura of enjoyment, passion and determination. The stand out performance was definitely Heenan’s Joe Spudd who not only had a strong singing voice but also conveyed the naivety needed for the character in a way that made me forget I was watching an adult and not an 11 year old boy.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for other members of the cast. While actors such as Lem Knights as Bob and Eleanor Kane as Lauren conveyed their parts well and managed to retain an onstage presence and develop their characters’ through their performance, other actors felt either under developed (like Sophia Nomvete’s Gwen) or just under used (like Natalie Morgan and Jared Leathwood as the Grubb siblings).
However, there is one character that needs the most improving in both the writing and performance itself – Raj. Avita Jay double cast as Sapphire Stone and Raj the shopkeeper. I did enjoy her performance as Stone, as Ray managed to convey a spoilt, manipulative diva very well however the performance of Raj was quite weak in my opinion. The way her character was written was in a similar vein as a pantomime comic relief and Jay hasn’t yet found her footing in the role. The dialogue she’s given is based on audience participation and as the show is aimed more towards children the actress could try to be more eccentric and more animated.
Another issue I had was the music. Now credit where credit is due, the writers of the show have to write original music and lyrics with a small band and group of musicians. However, my issue is the lack of variety in the music and the lack of catchy and memorable numbers. Each song seems the same and lacks the variation to stand out and subsequently isn’t memorable. When writing a musical you need to ensure that your audience will remember at least one song and I struggled to remember one that was particularly memorable.
However, the biggest complaint I have with the play is the humor. Let me clarify the fact that the humor isn’t bad, there are a few funny lines and tongue and cheek jokes. My problem with the humor is the lack of substance and lack of a demographic. The show seems focused on using modern references as its humor but a lot of these jokes seemed more aimed towards adults. The problem with this is that when they make a reference… that’s it. There’s no punch line to the reference which leads to quite a few moments of silence where laughter should be. For example, there is a scene where they reference Donald Trump and Brexit which would go over most children’s heads and as there is no joke to the reference the adults are not laughing. The writers clearly try to aim some jokes at children but they date very quick and once again lack substance.
The consistent nods towards Fortnite, Instagram, hash tags and flossing became old very quick and even now weren’t very topical. I half expected them to joke about Harambe and Damn Daniel. The final issue with the humor is the attempt to create dark humor that became quite uncomfortable and quite heavy for a children’s show. With lines such as “I finally understand why Romeo and Juliet killed themselves” and “soon will all be 6ft under” just didn’t work for the audience they were trying to attract.
Billionaire Boy has its moments with good performances, great sets and themes that are important to children but overall lacks aspects that would make the show memorable and distinct. There is nothing that would be offensive for people to hear and it definitely has moments where I laughed or found it impressive. I just think that there are quite a few areas that need to be worked on and developed. The concept seems like one that would work very well on stage and could eventually be thought of in the same vein as Matilda or Shrek.
Billionaire Boy runs at the New Theatre from Tuesday 26th February until Saturday 2nd March. To book tickets please ring their box office on
029 2087 8889 or visit their website https://www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk/