REVIEW: Gangsta Granny, Birmingham Stage Company (Bloomsbury Theatre)

Gangsta Granny has hopped on the mobility scooter and zoomed into London for the festive season. She’s barred from the Tower of London so you’ll have to head to Bloomsbury Theatre if you want to see David Walliams’ bestselling story come to life on stage. We were invited to a press performance this weekend, so Mummy and the munchkins headed along to see everyone’s favourite jewel thief in action.

Although David Walliams’ stories may adorn the bookshelves of households across the country, they haven’t made it into our house, meaning that we continue our trend of reviewing stage adaptations of children’s books that we have never read! So despite having a broad idea of what it was all about (thanks largely to the Gangsta Granny ride at Alton Towers) much of the storyline was something of a surprise. It centres around 11 year old Ben (Justin Davies), who dreads Friday nights at his boring Granny’s house until one day he discovers that Granny (Isabel Ford) is harbouring a huge secret. She’s not just any old lady; she’s an international jewel thief and she’s taking Ben on the adventure of a lifetime in a daring attempt to steal the crown jewels. Can the pair pull off this ambitious heist or will they be undone by Granny’s nosy neighbour, Mr Parker (Jason Furnival)?

The cast of Gangsta Granny at Bloomsbury Theatre. Credit: Mark Douet

It’s fair to say that Mummy went in with a degree of cynicism, not being a particular David Walliams fan, but she was pleasantly surprised by the show as a whole. It’s clear that Walliams is heavily influenced by Roald Dahl, with some elements feeling highly derivative. (The ballroom dancing parents will feel familiar to Matilda fans while Granny’s cabbage obsession is borrowed straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) Walliams’ style of humour also tends towards the gross side. But in between all the fart jokes is a story with real heart which will resonate with adults and children alike. Because this is not really a story about the glamour of being a gangster. It’s about following your dreams (which, in Ben’s case is to become a plumber) and also carries a cautionary tale about chronic loneliness among older people. Adapter and director, Neal Foster, dedicates the production to the late Rose Zierer (1910 to 2014) who he met through a local befriending scheme run by Age UK Camden. The programme tells of over 1 million older people like Rose who are extremely isolated, many going for days or even weeks without speaking to anyone. It’s a sobering statistic, and really hammers home the central message of the show, which is also dealt with brilliantly on stage. It’s clear that Granny dotes on Ben, describing him as the “highlight of my week”, and is crushed when she realises that he doesn’t feel the same. It’s also heartbreaking when Granny tells of taking two days to get to the phone after a fall, and will almost certainly have adults in the audience thinking about how often they check in on their own elderly relatives.

There is plenty of fun too though, in what is generally the sort of spectacularly silly production that you would expect of David Walliams. In addition to the toilet humour, there are some good gags, including Granny bringing a bag for life to carry the Crown jewels (but only one – after all, they cost 10p!) and an entertaining alibi involving the Cling Film Appreciation Society merging with the Bubblewrap Appreciation Society (although Mummy thinks this is the most implausible part of the plot on the grounds that bubblewrap is brilliant and clingfilm is Satan’s substance!) We also loved the versatile set (designed by Jacqueline Trousdale).

Irfan Damani as Raj and Justin Davies as Ben in Gangsta Granny. Credit: Mark Douet

However, while the overall moral of the story is sound, Gangsta Granny does feature some of the problematic stereotyping that rather plagues Walliams’ works. Three years after Walliams hit the headlines accused of racism over recurring character, Raj, it is disappointing to see that the stage show still features this caricature Indian shopkeeper, who tries to offload out of date products under the guise of a good deal. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this character, as written, is past his sell by date, and we would love to see better representation of the global majority in what is otherwise a show with some important things to say.

Overall, Gangsta Granny is a fun-filled, heartwarming show for over fives which will undoubtedly be a great introduction to live theatre for many children. Running at a little over two hours (including an interval) it’s just the right length, holding the attention of the young audience throughout, and offers a good alternative to panto if you’re looking for a Christmas holiday treat.

Gangsta Granny plays at Bloomsbury Theatre, London from 9 December 2021 to 9 January 2022. We received complimentary press tickets for the 3pm performance on Sunday 12 December.