‘Billionaire Boy’ has a heart of gold but it's missing laugh-out-loud moments
Working as a top dog in the toilet roll industry during the pandemic would have been a loo-crative way to earn money. Being in the toilet roll industry definitely worked for Billionaire Boy's Len Spud, a businessman sitting on piles of cash after creating BumFresh, toilet paper that's moist on one side and dry on the other. His son, Joe Spud, may have a lot of money, but all he’s looking for is a friend. Moving schools and meeting new people, Joe eventually realises that forming relationships doesn’t require money; it takes care and courage. And that in short is the storyline of Billionaire Boy, David Walliams’s third children’s book adapted for the stage.
It’s fair to say that I’m not the target demographic for Billionaire Boy. Aimed at primary school children who are more accustomed to listening to poo jokes aplenty, I found myself in the older half of the audience. I’m not scoffing at children’s theatre in the West End during the summer months though, it’s a great way to encourage little ones to a life watching live theatre. But while Billionaire Boy is packed with silliness, it’s missing a few funny bones to really make the audience laugh.
Billionaire Boy’s small-yet-mighty cast definitely packs a punch. Matthew Gordon (as Joe Spud) plays the spritely titular tween with ease, tapping into the mindset of a child that just wants to play. The majority of the cast multi-role too in order to bring dozens of zany characters to life. In particular, Benedict Martin gives hilarious turns as Dad/Bully Grubbs/PE teacher with similar characterisations to Martin Goodman from Friday Night Dinner. Emma Matthews in her main role as Mrs Trafe was arguably the star of the show, playing a terrifying dinner lady serving up a Roald Dahl-like menu of pigeons, mouldy socks and fried blu tack. Yum.
There's also a few original short songs by Jak Poore, breathing life into the characters throughout the two-hour play. The songs are often formulaic fillers that aren't anything too special, repeating lines over multiple times. But a teacher round robin song filled with teacher buzzwords and phrases is definitely an earworm.
Jacqueline Trousdale’s Billionaire Boy set balances a ‘king of the castle’ style loo-roll wealth with being practical; doors and boxes opened to invite us into a make-believe world. Like turning pages in a book, the opening revealing Len Spud flying in a helicopter had parents and kids in awe. Nia Evans' costume design grounds Billionaire Boy in its fictional reality too, even if the reality was highly influenced by stereotypes; the Dad's sexy girlfriend Sapphire teeters around in heels while the old Dad gets laughs by wearing toupees.
This is where I come to the Billionaire Boy storyline. Again, I understand that a storybook written with a younger generation in mind isn’t going to enthrall me. But its continual playing up to pejorative, dated stereotypes cheapens the laughter. Billionaire Boy’s only explicitly Asian character, Raj, owns a corner shop and is amped up with a thick-laid Asian accent — made obvious through the actor's multi-roling and the character Raj being the only character with this accent.
When female characters are given money, they use it for frivolous reasons (like getting boob jobs and new outfits) rather than helping others, like the male characters do. The fact that kids and adults alike didn’t laugh at the lunch lady having larger assets is telling that we’ve moved past jokes like this, so it’s a shame that Billionaire Boy plays into it so overtly. The sound was also slightly off too; I struggled to hear what was being said and sung with the exaggerated characters, and I sat in the centre stalls section.
When a child behind me shouted “just begin already” before the second act, it was clear the kids were loving Billionaire Boy. It’s a fresh kids show for families aged 4-104 to enjoy together. But for being a piece of children’s theatre, it needs more interaction, smiles, and lessons that have 2021 in mind. David Walliams even came on stage at the end too, which got a louder reaction than the curtain call. Perhaps that’s more telling of Billionaire Boy onstage than anything I could say.
Photo credit: Billionaire Boy cast (Photo by Mark Douet)