AS yet stage adaptations of popular children’s stories have not come up to the classic film versions that have been made of L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children or Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Whilst not putting this production in that category it has to be said that the Birmingham Stage Company have hit on a formula that readily captures the style and atmosphere of David Walliams immensely popular writings stimulating the imagination of the principally young audience the stories are aimed at.
This is the BSC’s third adaptation of a Walliams book, and in comparison to the previous pair, Gangsta Granny and Awful Auntie, where comedy was very much to the forefront, places the perhaps simplistic morality the author expresses in the story on a par, if not ahead of the comedy in the tale. Walliams takes up Edward Acton’s remark that ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and applies it to the problems faced by people, in this case a widowed entrepreneur and his son, who suddenly plunged into a world where they have what appears to be an endless source of money, lose sight of the genuine things in life and ability to show love and make friends.
It is the 12-year-old son Joe, played with great sensitivity by Matthew Gordon, who realises the emptiness of a life where he has everything except friends and tries to break out of this self-imposed prison by moving from an expensive private school where he is snobbishly bullied for being the son of a man who made his billions from inventing a new style toilet roll, to the local Comprehensive.
After making one true friend there, the overweight bullied Bob, thoughtfully portrayed by Davy Bell, he discovers once his identity has been discovered that the great wealth at his disposal is as big a problem here as it was in his previous school. It is only after the fortune is lost, and false friends like Bernard Mensah’s vibrant cool with-it Jayden, a friend bought and paid for by Joe’s loving, but thoughtless Dad, a lovely shallow character in the hands of Jason Furnival, and Rosie Coles Sapphire, a beautifully brassy gold digging would be Step-Mother, have disappeared that the author’s view on what are the truly important things in life come to the fore.
Before we reach that happy prospect of a new simpler life full of love, understanding and friendship we meet some expertly drawn characters, not least among them Aosaf Afzal’s philosophical Raj, local newsagents/sweet shop owner, and Emma Matthews school canteen hostess Mrs Trafe, with a menu that makes your stomach threaten to revolt at the mere mention of the ingredients.
They also introduce some extra comedy into a script which – for all that it obviously was on the same wavelength of the ten to fourteen year audience that it was principally aimed at, giving them much food for thought- would probably have benefitted from a few more inserts of lightheartedness like those to be found Neal Foster’s clever lyrics to Jak Poore’s brightly staged musical numbers.
Under adapter Neal Foster’s direction this stylish attractively staged production moves along at a merry pace and has to be classed as a third successful staging by Birmingham Stage Company of a popular David Walliams story.
Photographs by Mark Douet