Are you ready kids? For five weeks only, Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall has been transformed into Bikini Bottom; home of everyone’s favourite pineapple-dwelling sponge. After docking in Southampton earlier this year, The SpongeBob Musical has been on a UK & Ireland tour, arriving on the banks of the Thames just in time for the summer holidays. Audiences on this side of the Atlantic have been waiting patiently for the Broadway hit to wash up on our shores since 2018, so we were very excited to be invited along last Friday for an evening of nautical nonsense.
Based on the popular Nickelodeon series by Stephen Hillenburg, Kyle Jarrow’s adaptation offers all the quirky comedy of the cartoon, plus an original score featuring songs by an eclectic collection of artists from Cyndi Lauper to Plain White T’s. The show sees SpongeBob (Lewis Cornay) in a tight squeeze when an underwater volcano threatens to wipe out Bikini Bottom for good. With most of the town’s panicked inhabitants preparing to follow villainous Sheldon J Plankton (Divina De Campo) out of Bikini Bottom, it’s up to SpongeBob to save the day and prove that he’s not just a simple sponge. Together with best pal, Patrick (Irfan Damani) and squirrel sidekick, Sandy (we saw the excellent understudy, Eloise Davies), Spongebob must journey to the summit of the volcano and prove that friendship, science and the management skills of an underwater fry-cook can triumph over tectonic plates.
It’s a fun show which, like the cartoon, will appeal to a wide age range including grown-ups. (There were plenty of child-free adults around us having a whale of a time!) It has something of a panto vibe to it, which Divina De Campo brilliantly leans into as Plankton, while showing off some serious singing skills. Lewis Cornay is excellent as the effervescent but ever so slightly self-absorbed SpongeBob, demonstrating impressive energy and an incredible voice. We also loved Fabian Aloise’s clever choreography, particularly in the number involving a school of sardines, although Squidward’s big tap number feels like something of a damp squib in comparison. (Tom Read Wilson does not appear to be a very natural tapper although it’s unclear to what extent he may be hindered by having two extra legs; an otherwise ingenious piece of costuming from Sarah Mercade.)
Although by no means as deep as the ocean, The SpongeBob Musical does have some valuable messaging in it about friendship and self-belief, as well as some nice satirical references to Covid, anti-immigrant rhetoric and capitalism. Unfortunately, the latter message is rather spoiled by the extremely aggressive marketing of Nick Watches (Nickelodeon branded smart watches which require a data subscription). Not only are the watches on display at the marketing stand but all children are given a paper wristband which gives them a discount off a Nick Watch (reducing the ordinary retail price to a mere £49.99.) There is also a watch giveaway during the second Act, ensuring that every child goes away wanting one, and presumably committing the parents of the “lucky” child to an expensive subscription. It just all feels a bit much at a time when families are struggling, and will have already paid a significant amount for the theatre trip itself.
Overall, The SpongeBob Musical is a fabulously fun production with plenty of silliness to soak up. Just watch out for the hard sell on the merchandise.
The SpongeBob Musical plays at Southbank Centre from 26 July to 27 August 2023. We received complimentary tickets to the performance on 12 August.
Photo credit: Mark Senior