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Sweeping, sod-you comedy – irresistible: Billionaire Boy reviewed

Plus: a creaky new play about a remarkable encounter between Edward VIII and Marlene Dietrich

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

Falling In Love Again

King’s Head, until 8 February

Billionaire Boy

Bloomsbury Theatre

Falling In Love Again features two of the 20th century’s best-known sex athletes. Ron Elisha’s drama covers a long drunken night spent by Marlene Dietrich and Edward VIII at Fort Belvedere, near Windsor, on the eve of Edward’s abdication in December 1936. It sounds like a contrived premise for a play but Elisha, who researches his material thoroughly, says this encounter actually took place. Marlene (played by Ramona von Pusch as an enigmatic adventuress in green lipstick) claims to have fled the Savoy where Rudolf Hess is bombarding her with flowers in the hope of luring her home to make films for the Third Reich. Marlene refuses because she can’t stand Hitler. Edward, by contrast, admires the Führer but their clash of views doesn’t crystallise into anything significant.

Rather ungallantly, Edward keeps sloshing back spirits without offering his guest a drink. And he corrects her when she calls him ‘your Highness’. A stickler for protocol, he insists on ‘your Royal Highness’. However, at this point he’s still the monarch so ‘your Majesty’ would be the right form. It’s odd that he doesn’t know this. Equally strangely, he refers to his tipple as ‘whisky’ even though the liquid he drinks is colourless. A grain of food dye in the decanter would solve that problem.

The question that hangs over these two international celebrities is, of course, sex. Will they or won’t they? They keep striking amorous poses and staring deep into each other’s eyes but with no result. The fact that neither is constrained from having a one-night stand is, dramatically, a problem. Love affairs without obstacles are tedious to watch. And Elisha keeps spinning out the romantic uncertainties in the hope of seizing our attention. Marlene hints that she might displace Wallis, persuade Edward to cancel the abdication and marry him, thus making herself England’s queen. But even this possibility can’t excite us because we know it didn’t happen.


In between their chaste clinches, the pair while away the time by singing songs, playing indoor golf and chatting about this and that. Their discussions are not uninformative. We learn, for example, that Wallis dropped her first name, Bessie, because it sounded ‘too bovine’. Marlene informs us that her name is an amalgam of her first two names, Marie and Magdalene. But the script never quite dispels its sense of aimlessness and, occasionally, ineptitude. Marlene, who is 34, is told by Edward that she looks barely 21. ‘Charmer,’ she exclaims, and playfully belts him in the chest so hard that he falls off the chaise longue. Stage movements like these are easy to write at the playwright’s desk but they’re fiendishly difficult to reproduce in a theatre. What effect is being sought? Slapstick, perhaps, but physical comedy doesn’t suit the mood of high drama between two glamorous, sophisticated globetrotters.

Much of the dialogue is creaky. ‘You dance so beautifully,’ gushes Edward. When Marlene searches for a witty reply, she offers: ‘It takes two to tango.’ Towards the close of the action, she does better by observing that ‘a wife who forgives her husband shouldn’t reheat his sins for breakfast’. That sounds like the real Marlene.

Billionaire Boy is a comic musical about a rich working-class kid, Joe Spud. His dad, Len Spud, has invented a type of moistened loo paper, Bum Fresh, which earns the family billions. They live like kings in a palatial mansion, Bum Fresh Towers, but when the loo paper develops unexpected side effects their fortune is threatened. The novel by David Walliams has been transformed, under the direction of Neal Foster, into a burlesque song-and-dance show that is aimed at schoolboys aged about ten with a sick sense of humour. (Perfect for me then.) The cheap but versatile set will make the production easy to tour. And the pre-recorded soundtrack ensures that there’ll be no pesky musicians to deal with. The central narrative — wealthy family goes bust and learns that love is more important than money — is a little threadbare, but Walliams and Foster have built up the lesser characters to buttress the slightly flimsy plot.

Joe’s dad has a bimbo girlfriend, Sapphire, who proudly displays her designer handbag. ‘It comes in eight different colours — one for each day of the week.’ Asked if she’s dim, she responds with outrage. ‘Me? Brain-dead? I’ve got a GCSE in Make-Up.’ The dinner lady at Joe’s school serves lunches made from badgers, bats and uncooked potatoes. She scrounges a loan from Joe — ‘for my-hip replacement operation’ — and spends it on a boob job.

Is there a hint of authorial disdain for these greedy, mendacious working-class characters? Yes, and more than a hint. There are great trowelfuls of condescension but that seems to suit the show’s sweeping, sod-you comedy ethos. This is wonderful stuff. A hoot for adults. Irresistible for kids.


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