It’s testament to his genius that the brain behind Vicky Pollard, Bubbles Devere and Daffyd – the only gay in the village – is also able to write one of the most successful children’s books in the country. Since departing from the shores of Little Britain, David Walliams has made quite the name for himself in the notoriously difficult to break children’s market. With illustrations by the legendary Quentin Blake and a BBC Christmas adaptation in the bag, Walliams has gone from strength to strength. Neal Foster’s stage adaption of the immensely popular Gangsta Granny continues to prove that Walliams Got Talent.
The ‘gangsta’ in question is less Compton Crip and more Croydon Crochet whose grandson Ben (Ashley Cousins) is reluctant to spend time with his cabbage consuming, gassy Grandmother. Ben’s rotten parents are utterly obsessed with Strictly Come Dancing and encourage their son to follow suit despite his passion for all things plumbing. After overhearing Ben on the phone to his parents announcing that all old people are boring, Granny (Gilly Tompkins) lets him in on her secret that she is a world famous cat burglar. The dynamic duo then plans to carry out the ultimate heist to steal, and then return because stealing is wrong, The Crown Jewels.
Cousins and Tompkins are electric and their vibrant energy filled the house with roaring laughter. Granny’s recounting of her previous thieving accomplishments, in which Indian elephants and Russian bears came to life, was a particularly pleasing scene. Tompkins’ sprightly interaction with the exotic animals was immaculately composed and captivated every member of the audience. At times the action involved characters whizzing around the stage, but Paul Chantry and Rae Piper’s choreography was executed to perfection allowing such movements to appear sleek and purposeful.
Jacqueline Trousdale’s last creative collaboration under the helm of Neal Foster relied heavily on interactive devices and technology, but here the set designer proves that she is just as capable without a television screen. The compact and rotating stage blocks allowed for swift and elegant scene transitions from Granny’s front room to the corner shop, run by the slightly misjudged character of Raj. Foster astutely chose to fill the interim periods of block rotation with dance numbers performed by Ben’s parents (Laura Girling and Benedict Martin), which meant the action never stopped. The performance was a visual delight that never dropped the ball.
As far as narrative complexity goes, Walliams’ text is not particularly new or ground-breaking. But at a time when those in the children’s entertainment industry cannot seem to go five minutes without shoving an iPad in your face or making a lackadaisical reference to selfies, Gangsta Granny understands that audiences often yearn for simplicity. Walliams reliance on laughs from Granny’s flatulence or a thick Indian accent, although at times a little crass, are exactly what kids want to watch at the theatre.
The distinguishing feature of this production which is often absent in children’s theatre, as was in Enda Walsh’s recent production of The Twits at The Royal Court, is the underlying message that it wishes to convey. Foster encourages his young audience to take the time out and talk to their elderly relatives. Upon realising that his Granny is not as lifeless as he once thought, Ben cannot wait till the next time he gets to hear her regale him with stories of yesteryear. Although your own grandparents past may not be as thrilling as stealing diamonds from a Maharani, you should take the time to listen to what they’ve experienced because they won’t be around forever.