Teen critic Gully Thompson is disappointed by the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy
As a child, (which wasn’t that long ago) I was one of the many fans of David Walliams’s books. The books are wildly popular, full of witty and light-hearted humour while speaking about serious and thoughtful issues. The Boy in the Dress, for example, follows a cross-dressing boy trying to fit in with his school, and in Mr Stink a girl befriends a homeless man. So I jumped at the chance to see a play based on another of Walliams’ books, Billionaire Boy.
Billionaire Boy tells the story of Joe Spud, a 12-year-old billionaire who is in need of a friend. He enrols in an ordinary school and pretends that he’s just an ordinary boy in the hopes that he’ll find an ordinary kid who’ll like him. The story touches on how wealth affects character, and how the rich and poor are treated differently. It combines humour with intelligent storytelling, a signature style for Walliams’ writing. But I was disappointed in how those themes and his story were translated to the stage.
The themes are still visible in this version of the story, but are less subtle. Being faithful to the book, of course, doesn’t mean everything; but the way the themes are approached is very important to how it is received by its young audience. Preserving Walliams’ subtlety will plant moral sense of the story in a child’s head. Making it too obvious doesn’t speak in the same voice: it feels as if the play is telling the child what to think, instead of letting them discover the ideas by themselves.
I noticed that the style of Walliams’ storytelling was definitely changed. His humour combines light hearted satire and gross-out jokes, but the play concentrates on the gross-out humour. Used too frequently, it becomes overdone and heavy-handed.
There are also some choices in the writing that I found strange. For example, the characters in the play are much older. Here, they’re at high school in year 11, which would make them about 16 or 17, even though they still talk and act like the 12-year-olds that were written in the original story. Their age isn’t changed for any particular reason that I can see. It just seems odd in how it distances the age of the characters from the age of the audience.
On the plus side, the actors carry the show well with strong performances. They play the characters with an obvious passion that works well with the story. This is the element that, for me, really does work.
Aside from the age change, I was surprised that the play is a musical. I didn’t really see how musical numbers would move the story forward, and in actuality they hold the story back. The numbers pop up in places that aren’t always relevant to the story; often they are just playing out a joke that makes the storytelling awkward and causes the audience’s attention to wane, as we begin to wish for the story to move along.
I would like to note a character in the story (who is also present in most of Walliams’s other books) who presents a few problems: Raj, the newsagent. In the books, Raj is an Indian newsagent who sells cheap goods and tries to swindle customers out of their money. For me, this character has the same problems of racial stereotyping as Apu does in The Simpsons, an issue that has been the subject of much controversy. The actor in the play performs with a comically thick Indian accent, which makes for some uncomfortable viewing. Of course, the character is not the fault of the play, but this racial impersonation feels seriously out of touch.
After the show, you can walk out to the foyer for a small installation presented by Polyglot Theatre, which is called Feast. It centres around the school cafeteria in both the play and the book, except here kids can create their own weird and wonderful meals out of arts and crafts materials. I found it really interesting how well the style of the piece works with the story itself, through Polyglot’s signature simplicity. I did enjoy how faithful the design is to Tony Ross’ illustrations.
Similarly, the set design works well; it’s clever in how interchangeable it is for different scenes. It fits the story well and is just generally aesthetically pleasing. Similarly, the costumes are designed to reflect the design of the characters from the book, and they visually represent them well.
Billionaire Boy isn’t a bad show, but when you remove the key elements of the story you’re left with a shell of what it could have been. The real problem is that it misses the opportunity to take a more in-depth look at the issues that make the story what it is: money, social ranking and character studies.
A lot of elements have been altered to make the story seem more appealing to the young audience, but in the end Walliams’s style of storytelling is what makes his books work. When the play twists and turns Walliams’ tale into a different story, it simply isn’t as effective. To call on an old saying, this story of money just couldn’t buy me happiness.
Billionaire Boy, by Maryam Master, based on the book by David Walliams. Directed by Susanna Dowling, sets and costumes by Isabella Andronos, lighting design by Nicholas Higgins, composition and sound design by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, choreography by Nigel Turner-Carroll. Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Until April 14. Bookings
Wheelchair access, assistive hearing