Billionaire Boy review at NST City, Southampton – ‘irreverent, funny new hit British musical’
At first this looks like it might be a musical about feeling sorry for a very rich guy because he doesn’t have any friends. And it is, though that’s only partly true. The messages in this musical adaptation of David Walliams’ monster-selling Billionaire Boy are more complex – mainly that you shouldn’t aspire to be rich (from someone who knows); what’s important is love.
Pretty much out of nowhere, a fully-fledged, hit-heavy musical has appeared. Considering the talent behind it – Rotterdam writer Jon Brittain, In the Heights director Luke Sheppard – maybe that’s not such a surprise, but this has still taken a remarkably short time to go from concept to staging compared to most musicals.
Walliams’ ever-so-slightly savage humour and his penchant for meaty, monosyllabic surnames – Grub, Spud, Spite – mark him out as a natural successor to Roald Dahl. The plot is Dahl-like too: Joe, son of a nouveau riche billionaire who made his fortune from revolutionary loo roll, decides to go to a local comp in order to find a friend, which is where he meets pal Bob.
Nic Farman’s over-saturated lighting along with the cartoonish hues of Gabriella Slade’s set conjure some of the sharp corners of Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations of both of those authors.
The songs are hook-heavy, verse-chorus pop, which makes sense since they’re written by the massively successful pop writing partnership of Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler, behind the hits of Girls Aloud and Sugababes. Their lyrics – co-written with Brittain – are really excellent. They’re properly funny, they tell stories and are bursting with wit and silly rhymes.
Although slightly unadventurous at first, Cooper and Coler start to flex their muscles as the show goes on, so that we get a Bossa Nova ballad in Real World, a synthy “I want” number in Ordinary and a brilliantly, adolescently awkward pop duet in Perfect Time.
Ryan Heenan’s Joe feels like he’s holding something back, and his voice isn’t the strongest, but he’s a loveable focal point and a great dancer. After her extraordinary performance in Fun Home earlier this year, it’s great to see Eleanor Kane show off her actor-muso talents again as Joe’s love interest.
Most things are made better by the addition of Dean Nolan, and he gets to really let rip with fantastically comic performances as both Joe’s dad and dinner lady Mrs Trafe – the sight of him front-flipping off a table into the splits while wearing a wig and apron is one of the theatrical highlights of the year. Nolan, however, is given a run for his money by rich-voiced Sophia Nomvete, tripling as Bob’s mum and two teachers.
Tweaks could definitely be made. A front-of-cloth number after the interval is too panto-esque, and feels too much like filler. Also what sincere moments there are, particularly a soppy love-in of an ending, are tonally awkward compared to the wonderful silliness and irreverence of the rest of the show.
Minor imperfections aside, this is a cracker of Christmas show: a really strong, super-funny new musical with serious commercial gloss, a big, bankable hit for Nuffield Southampton Theatres as it approaches its first anniversary at new venue NST City.