Emma Clegg reviews David Walliams’ stage adaption of Gangsta Granny at Theatre Royal Bath until 1 April
How do you make a best-selling children’s story into an award-winning theatrical extravaganza? Why, by adapting David Walliams’ book Gansta Granny of course. See this West End production at Theatre Royal Bath, at the beginning of its new tour, and be prepared for arched, flashing lights; Strictly-style dancing; gameshow music; revolving scenery; and big, uncomplicated, lovable characters. There are lots of extra cabbages, too. And even the Queen makes an appearance.
Walliams’ story has pantomime at its heart. Ben is an only child. He has to spend Friday nights with his Granny when his parents go out ballroom dancing together. He thinks Granny is really boring because she gives him cabbage soup, cabbage pie and cabbage cake (and smells of cabbage), likes playing scrabble and makes him go to bed early. She also has a habit of farting when she walks. But then Ben discovers something unexpected about his Granny and suddenly life becomes so much more exciting than he could have possibly imagined…
Tom Cawte is a magnificent Ben, delivering a warm, convincing and energetic performance. Louise Bailey, Granny, infuses her role with both laughter and pathos. Jenny Gayner, Ben’s mum, is a dancing diva with flamboyant Strictly hand and arm gestures to rival those of Bruno Tonioli. Newsagent Raj does his much-loved character full justice, and doubles up as Flavio, Mum’s ballroom dancing tutor. There is also an impressive and confident dance performance by Lily Mabel Edwards, a dancer from Bath’s Dorothy Coleborn School of Dance who is performing for the shows in Bath.
The shortcomings of family relationships are movingly captured – the grandparent who is rarely visited by the immediate family, the misunderstandings and lack of connection within families, even the loss of a much loved grandparent – all of these are sensitively portrayed within the plot in a gentle, matter-of-fact way. This works effectively with the production’s core energy and humour, and gives the overall experience warmth and significance.
The set, and indeed the production, are masterpieces of creativity and invention. There are three main scenic elements, which start as high, irregular blocks, and each one revolves and has pieces that fold out to create different interiors and scenarios. So the left-hand block can be transformed into Raj’s newsagents, a basin and mirror for cleaning teeth, and the living room TV for watching Strictly. The middle block is Granny’s house exterior and front door, the living room sofa, a hospital bed, a jewellery shop window and the cabinet in the Tower of London containing the Crown Jewels. The right-hand block is Granny’s living room and Ben’s bedroom.
The shifting adjustment of the sets creates constant movement and interest on stage. This dynamic is built on by Granny whizzing about on her mobility scooter, Ben riding his bicycle, actors passing by as cars on the ‘motorway’ at the front of the stage with handle bars with two car headlights attached, marching Russian soldiers, and a mobile blue satin river (the Thames) for crossing before stealing the Crown Jewels. There’s even a cameo appearance from a couple of elephants with dynamic, automated trunks. Oh yes, and a bear.
With the story designed for Walliams’ core reading audience, nine-12s, there is plenty of age-group flexibility within the production, and adults will (I can attest) have as much fun as the kids. The audience are closely involved – Raj the newsagent, a character who appears in all Walliams’ books, performs a slot in the theatre during the interval, briefing the audience on how handsome and clever he is, and the last section sees all the children in the audience given the option to stand up and dance freestyle to the music. This is fun and makes even the most retiring want to jig their shoulders and tap their feet.
And be prepared that the throbbing beat of the melody will be playing in your heads for the rest of the day and probably the following one too…