REVIEW: Birmingham Stage Company in David Walliams’s Demon Dentist, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday ***

Sam Varley’s Alfie, with Miss Root’s cat Zang, Emily Harrigan’s Miss Root, Georgia Grant-Anderson’s Gabz and Misha Malcolm’s Winnie in David Walliams’s Demon Dentist. Picture: Mark Douet

AS part of Birmingham Stage Company’s 30th anniversary, director Neal Foster is drilling down into the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth in a third collaboration with prolific children’s author David Walliams.

As with Gangsta Granny and Billionaire Boy, already presented at the Grand Opera House by these regular York visitors, Foster has written the adaptation and lyrics for this fast-moving fangtasy.

In familiar Walliams style, Roald Dahl meets Little Britain for little’uns in his toothy tale of dental detectives Alfie Griffin (Sam Varley) and school classmate Gabz (Georgia Grant-Anderson) – his friend who’s a girl but not his girlfriend, just to be clear – investigating the strange events suddenly besetting children’s bedrooms in their hometown.

As per the norm, children leave their teeth for the tooth fairy, but in Walliams’s warped world, they awake to find strange, unpleasant things under their pillows. Dead mice. A bat’s wing. The rest of the bat is apparently still alive, reduced to flying around in circles. A typical Walliams gag in a show that adds a pinch of Tim Burton and Addams Family gothic humour and pathos too.

Alfie is 12, a lone child, with a dead mother and an ailing dad (James Mitchell), who is reduced to walking on sticks as he struggles with his breathing after years of working down the mine. Pneumoconiosis. Not long to go.

Dark materials for a children’s show, you might think, but it was ever thus in literature. Besides, there is the bond of love, a routine of tea and biscuits after school. Comfort amid the difficulties of what life has thrown at them.

Emily Harrigan’s “tooth witch”, Miss Root. Picture: Mark Douet

Varley’s Alfie has something of the downbeat yet upwardly aspirant diarist Adrian Mole about him, aged 12, not 13¾, not least in his Me Against The World demeanour, especially in his relationship with social care worker Winnie (Misha Malcolm), with her expectations of chocolate biscuits or any variation of chocolate whenever she visits.

Those demands peak in one of the show’s best scenes, full of comic timing by Varley and Malcolm, as his exasperation meets her insistent enquiries in pursuit of a choc boost.

Where does the demon dentist of the title fit in, you ask? All routes lead to Emily Harrigan’s Miss Root – “Call me Mummy,” she says, arms outstretched – who is one of those white-coated practitioners that puts the mental into dental, like Orin Scrivello in Little Shop Of Horrors.

Alfie has not sat in a dental chair since his traumatic encounter with his last dentist – Mr Erstwhile, a literary gag of a name for a late dentist – six years ago and his mouth is more like a graveyard. Off to the corner of Drill Drive and Plaque Place he is taken, and evil this way lies.

Before you know it, kindly, if eccentric newsagent Raj (Zain Abrahams) has given him his late wife’s false teeth and drunk the stale water himself. Raj makes a case to be the favourite character here, with his bargain offers on everything, his warm heart and eternal optimism. A cornershop caricature, yes, but within the exaggeration rests the ring of truth too.

Sometimes, especially in the first half, Foster’s production feels overstretched, the comedy striving too hard. Alas, Miss Root falls short of a premier league villain, no match for a Miss Trunchbull or Miss Hannigan: a dental disappointment.

Dental detectives at work! Sam Varley’s Alfie Griffin and Georgia Grant-Anderson’s Gabz. Picture: Mark Douet

Gems are to be found, however: observations of no-one liking the coffee-flavoured Revels; how boys and girls behave towards each other at 12; above all, the scene-stealing cameo by the over-excitable drama teacher (Aaron Patel), flouncing around as he revels in an improvisation session. Why is every school impro play always about the end of the world, ponders Walliams. How true!

Jacqueline Trousdale’s set, comprising brick walls and interiors beneath a brooding urban skyline, moves with ease from house to school to dental surgery and later, in the equivalent of a pantomime transformation scene, to a mine shaft and Miss Root’s bewitching HQ. Jak Poore’s songs are functional rather than memorable.

This driller-thriller adventure ends with self-sacrifice, a thwarted, flattened baddie, an adoption and a wedding, so much melodrama to cram in, like a misfitting set of dentures, but with a big smile as the reward.

David Walliams’s Demon Dentist, Grand Opera House, York, today, 10.30am, 6.30pm; Saturday, 11am, 3pm. Box office:

What’s next from Birmingham Stage Company on tour?

David Walliams’s Awful Auntie, Live On Stage!, coming to a theatre near you in 2024. Watch this space.

REVIEW: David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy, Birmingham Stage Company, at Grand Opera House, York, ends Sunday ***

Matthew Gordon’s Joe Spud, centre, front, and Matthew Mellalieu’s Dad, centre, back, in Birmingham Stage Company’s Billionaire Boy. Picture: Mark Douet

IT used to be Roald Dahl’s stories that always drew children to the theatre, whether The Witches, James And The Giant Peach, The Twits or The BFG.

Now fellow prolific novelist David Walliams is becoming ubiquitous too, ploughing a similar furrow of comedy with an element of the grotesque. First came Gangsta Granny, now Billionaire Boy, and come September, the world premiere of Demon Dentist will be the latest to roll off the Birmingham Stage Company production line (to mark the company’s 30th anniversary).

Billionaire Boy is the tale of lonely boy Joe Spud (Matthew Gordon), whose 12th birthday present is a £1 million cheque, just as it was for his 11th birthday. Mum has left Billionaire Dad, Len (Nether Poppleton actor Matthew Mellalieu), whose new billionaire pad is the largest house in Britain, with a butler to boot, having made his fortune from inventing loo roll that is moist on one side, dry on the other.

Joe already has two pet crocodiles, the biggest TV, a simulated Formula One race track, but no friends: a bum deal indeed, especially at his private school, where he is picked on as the “Bottom Billionaire”.

Will moving to a new school, the local comp Ruffington High School, change all that in director Neal Foster’s boisterous adaptation, where the bum meets the Brum, with the accent on bold caricature performances on a set design made out of…you guessed it, loo rolls?

There are shades of Molesworth, Adrian Mole and Just William (Just Walliams?!) here, capturing the school world of bullying (the Grubs), teasing, trying to fit in, dealing with petty disciplinarian teachers and trying to avoid the ghastly lunch menu of dinner lady Mrs Trafe (one of several outstanding cameos by Emma Matthews).

Gordon’s Joe has a lugubrious air, fed by his Dad’s brash ways constantly bringing him further difficulties, especially with fellow outsider Bob (Jake Lomas). Father has even more to learn than son.

Suitable for age five upwards, Billionaire Boy is high spirited, fun at times too, typified by Tuhin Chisti’s shopkeeper Raj, but somehow not as fun, charming or engaging as it could be, not least Jak Poore’s underwhelming songs. All in all, that makes it a bit of a bummer.

Performances: tonight at 7pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7pm; Sunday, 11am, 3pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or

How cabbage soup, David Walliams and a Crown Jewels-thieving Gangsta Granny became a recipe for stage show success

Oh, no, cabbage soup again: Granny (Isabel Ford) serves up another spoonful to 11-year-old grandson Ben (Justin Davies) in Birmingham Stage Company’s Gangsta Grammy. Picture: Mark Douet

WHEN actor, humorist, author, talent-show judge, Channel swimmer and activist David Walliams was a child he spent time aplenty with his grandmas.

So began his odyssey to writing Gangsta Granny, his book for children that has since transferred to the stage in Birmingham Stage Company’s touring production, whose latest itinerary takes in the Grand Opera House from February 3 to 6, having first played the York theatre in September 2016.

“Sometimes I would selfishly think spending time with my grannies could be boring,” he says. “But when I got them on a subject like living in London during World War II, when bombs were raining down, they would become very animated and I would be enthralled. I realised everyone has a story to tell.”

In Walliams’s tale, Friday night means only one thing for Ben: staying with Granny, where he must put up with cabbage soup, cabbage pie and cabbage cake. Ben knows one thing for sure – it will be so, so boring – but what Ben doesn’t know is that Granny has a secret.

Soon Friday nights will be more exciting than he could ever imagine, as he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime with his very own Gangsta Granny.

“I realised everyone has a story to tell,” says David Walliams, who drew on childhood memories of his grandmothers for Gangsta Granny

“There was definitely a smell of cabbages in one of my grandmas’ houses,” recalls Walliams, giving an insight into his inspiration for Gangsta Granny. “The other did break wind like a duck quacking when she walked across the room.”

Walliams acknowledges the special bond between children and their grandparents. “I think grandparents love being grandparents because they get to give the children back to the parents!” says the 50-year-old Little Britain and Partners In Crime television star.

“Children love spending time with their grandparents because they love hearing their stories and being allowed to stay up past their bedtime.”

He is delighted that Gangsta Granny has become a stage show. “It’s a huge thrill seeing Gangsta Granny have this whole new life on the stage. It’s already been a TV film. People seem to really like the story,” says Walliams. “In fact Gangsta Granny is my best-selling book by far, and the stage show is brilliant – better than the book.”

Assessing the potential challenges or difficulties in staging Gangsta Granny, he says: “There is lots of action, especially when they try to steal the Crown Jewels. It’s quite a challenge for Birmingham Stage Company to bring those scenes to life but they do it so well,” he says. “Shows for children need to be fun and fast paced, which Gangsta Granny certainly is.”

Birmingham Stage Company cast members in Gangsta Granny. Picture: Mark Douet

“The great thing about seeing Gangsta Granny on stage is you will get to share it with an audience. So hopefully you will laugh and cry along with everyone else. That’s what makes theatre so special.”

What does Walliams hope children will take away from watching Gangsta Granny in York next month? “The moral of the story is, ‘don’t assume old people are boring just because they are old’,” he advises. “In fact, they are likely to have had a much more interesting life than yours. Talk to old folk, listen to their stories. They are bound to be full of magic and wonder.”

Wise words indeed from Walliams, who took up writing children’s fiction 15 years ago. “I had an idea for a story: what if a boy went to school dressed as a girl? I thought it would be a thought-provoking children’s book. That became The Boy In The Dress, my first of many children’s novels,” he says.

“The only limitation in a children’s book is your imagination. You can take children on magical journeys in books that many adults would be reluctant to go on.”

Walliams highlights the challenges presented by writing for children? “Children love to be scared but it can’t be too horrifying. Children love to laugh but it can’t be too rude. You always have to be the right side of the line,” he says.

He admires the work of Roald Dahl, arguably the 20th century doyen of children’s authors. “I think Dahl’s books always feel a little bit forbidden. He manages to balance the humour and scary elements in his stories perfectly,” says Walliams, who picks The Twits as his favourite Dahl story. “It’s utterly hilarious and I love that it’s a children’s book with no child characters.”

Birmingham Stage Company actor-manager Neal Foster, who has adapted and directed Gangsta Granny

He recalls enjoying other writers, such as Dr Seuss, in his childhood days. “I loved Dr Seuss books as a child, especially Green Eggs And Ham. His books are like nightmares come to life. They are rich and strange and utterly unlike anybody else’s work,” says Walliams.

David Walliams has become popular in his own right as a children’s author and ticket sales for Gangsta Granny testify to that popularity. “I imagine children like the humour and that I don’t patronise them,” he says, summing up his appeal as a storyteller. “I deal with quite big topics, cross-dressing, homelessness, grief. I know children are a lot smarter than most grown-ups think.”

Premiered in 2015, Gangsta Granny has become a West End hit twice over, prompting stage adaptations of Walliams’s books Awful Auntie and Billionaire Boy too. Now Birmingham Stage Company actor-manager Neal Foster’s adaptation returns to York for a second Grand Opera House run, full of Walliams’s humorous home truths wrapped inside family relationships. 

Birmingham Stage Company in Gangsta Granny, Grand Opera House, York, February 3 to 6; Thursday to Saturday, 2.30pm and 7pm, Sunday, 11am and 3pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at Suitable for age 5+.

Did you know?

SINCE the 2008 publication of his first novel, The Boy In The Dress, David Walliams’s  books have sold  44 million copies worldwide and been translated into 55 languages.

Isabel Ford’s Granny and Justin Davies’s Ben in the Crown Jewels scene in Gangsta Granny. Picture: Mark Douet

Panto in a car park? Oh, yes it is, in Horrible Christmas at Elvington Airfield on January 2

Horrible Histories’ cast for Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas, destined for Elvington Airfield

THE world’s first drive-in pantomime is to park up at Elvington Airfield, York, for a “terrible end” to Christmas on January 2, courtesy of the gleefully grotesque Horrible Histories team.

Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas will be performed at 11am, 2pm and 5pm that day in the finale to a 14-date tour of racecourses, airports, stadiums and a motor-racing circuit that begins on Friday.

This is the second tour of a show first prompted by the pandemic-enforced closure of theatres nationwide in 2020. Birmingham Stage Company and Coalition Presents responded by working together to save Christmas for more than17,000 families by putting on their drive-in panto premiere. 

Writer-director Neal Foster, actor/manager of Birmingham Stage Company, says: “We have to thank the remarkable pandemic closing all the theatres for these car park shows coming about.

“At first, we didn’t know what to do, but various people had ideas about doing things in car parks, and in fact we were contacted by seven companies, but only Coalition followed it up, and so we did Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain in car parks.

“Then, Guy Robinson, from Coalition, asked if we had a Christmas show, and we said, ‘yes, we have Horrible Christmas’.”

Cue the first tour last winter, when, “by December 31, we were the only company still doing a show, because the theatres had had to close again, and our last show, after two weeks of performances, was in Harrogate [at the Great Yorkshire Showground],” says Neal.

“We then put together Billionaire Boy for car parks, for May, when shows could re-start, and that show then went into the West End. Since May, we’ve done eight shows in seven months; we just haven’t stopped!  

Birmingham Stage Company’s cast for Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain, the first car park tour show

“In fact, it’s been one of our most successful years, and a lot of that was down to the money we received from the Culture Recovery Fund. We didn’t need to apply for the third round of grants, but we wouldn’t have been able to do this year’s shows without the £200,000 we received earlier on.”

Neal was “amazed and thrilled by how totally successful the Car Park Party productions have proved to be”. “We’re delighted to be back on tour again with Horrible Christmas. It turns live theatre into a truly unique and festive event.”

In a nutshell, Horrible Christmas is a car-centred, Covid-secure experience, wherein children and adults are able to able to jump up and down in their own seats, cheer and make as much noise as they like, even beeping horns, as they watch a celebration of Christmas “delivered in a way that only Horrible Histories can”.

“You don’t need to worry about anyone else because you’re in your own bubble in your car, like everyone there,” says Neal. “It’s like you’re in your own VIP tent!”

In the panto, when Christmas comes under threat from a jolly man dressed in red, one young boy must save the day, but can he save Christmas? From Victorian villains to medieval monks, Puritan parties to Tudor treats, the Horrible Histories cast of eight sets off on a hair-raising adventure through the history of Christmas in the company of Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell, King Henry VIII and St Nicholas as they all join forces to rescue the festive season in Terry Deary’s tale.

True, it is not strictly speaking a typical panto, but nevertheless Horrible Christmas will spark up the audience’s festive spirit, from the comfort and security of their own cars.

In doing so, the Car Park Panto seeks to address these scenarios: children being unable to sit still; the need to cater for different snack requirements; the feeling of anxiety in crowds; the inability to find a dog sitter; and a desire to wear pyjamas, fancy dress or a Christmas jumper at the panto and not be judged.

“You can leave all worries at home and relax as a family with Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas,” say the promoters. “If traditional panto at your local theatre is proving too expensive for all the family, Horrible Christmas! is the best value ticket for you. 

The poster for Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas show

“The ticket covers the car, not the people inside, so you can bring your grandparents and babies and be sound in the knowledge you will be safe seated among family and friends, rather than in a packed theatre auditorium.”

Horrible Histories’ own history of Horrible Christmas began in 2013. “We first did it in a co-production with Derby Playhouse that year, and apart from one year, it’s been put on every year since then, at such places as the Lowry, Salford Quays, Blackpool Winter Gardens, Cambridge and Birmingham,” says Neal.

“It’s different from our other Horrible Histories stories, with a cast of eight, making it the biggest Horrible Histories show we do, whereas we do the Barmy Britain show with a double act and big 3D special effects. Not only do we use eight actors but there’s a screen on stage too, so it’s like a concert, with everything being filmed live.”

Horrible Christmas tells the story of a young boy having all his Christmas presents stolen by ‘Father Christmas’, who turns out not to be Father Christmas.  “The boy goes back to the times of Charles Dickens, Charles II, Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII, Saint Nicholas, and back to Bethlehem itself, and what’s different to other Horrible Histories is that it’s very touching,” says Neal.

“It’s worth saying, there’s nothing gory about Horrible Christmas, unlike our other shows. It’s more about being silly and funny – and it works really well in a car park.

“Because the play is about how special Christmas is to people, it was great for us that last Christmas, for some, it was the only way to experience a Christmas show. It remains the safest way to see a Christmas show, and it’s particularly good if you have anyone elderly or vulnerable in your family.”

What comes next for Horrible Histories? “We’ve been doing Horrible Histories shows for 16 years now, starting in 2005, and there’s no end to that history,” says Neal. “Fortunately, humans have produced all sorts of horrible history down the years, and Boris Johnson is doing that for us now, isn’t he?!”

Car Park Panto presents Horrible Histories in Horrible Christmas, Elvington Airfield, near York, January 2 2022. Bring blankets, sleeping bags, maybe a favourite festive hat – oh, and a car, obviously. Tickets: £49.50 per car, plus £2.50 booking fee, at  

Did you know?

“HENRY VIII is one of the reasons why turkey became popular on Christmas Day,” says Neal Foster. “The world seems to follow the fashion of what the Royals do, and it was Henry who introduced the eating of turkey at Christmas. As with all the Horrible Histories, that story is taken from a Terry Deary book.”

Barmy Britain? If you think modern times are bad, try Horrible Histories for size

Gunpowder Guy in Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain

CAN you beat battling Boudicca? What if a Viking moved in next door? Would you lose your heart or head to horrible Henry VIII?

Can evil Elizabeth entertain England? Will Parliament survive Gunpowder Guy? Dare you stand and deliver to dastardly Dick Turpin?

Can you escape the clutches of Burke and Hare? Why not move to the groove with Party-Queen Victoria?

Questions, questions, so many questions to answer, and here to answer them are the Horrible Histories team in their alternative history lesson, Barmy Britain, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, until Sunday.

These purveyors of the West End’s longest-running children’s show are bringing British history to life in a humorously horrible and eye-popping show trip to the past with Horrible Histories’ trademark 3D effects.

Watch out for their Bogglevision array of illusions, as skulls hover, dams burst and missiles fly into the audience – and be sure to duck. Fast!

Party Queen Victoria in Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain

Presented by the Birmingham Stage Company over 15 years, the Horrible Histories Live on Stage shows are written by Neal Foster and Horrible Histories author Terry Deary.

Deary has written 200 books, translated into 40 languages. Since 1983, his 50 Horrible Histories titles have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide from China to Brazil.

Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain is directed by Foster and designed by Jackie Trousdale, with lighting by Jason Taylor, sound by Nick Sagar, music by Matthew Scott and choreography by Kenn Oldfield.

“We all want to meet people from history. The trouble is, everyone is dead. It’s time to prepare yourselves for Horrible Histories,” says Foster. “Our wonderful Barmy Britain journey through the gruesome, scary and unbelievable moments in British history is perfect entertainment for anyone aged from 5 to 105!”

Performances are at 10.30am and 7pm today; 3pm and 7pm, Saturday; 11am and 3pm, Sunday. Box office:

Oh, Deary! Harrogate shows on Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain tour cancelled

History on the move: Neal Foster and Morgan Philpott will be performing Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain on later spring dates than first planned on the Car Park Tour. Picture: Mark Douet

HORRIBLE blow for Harrogate, as the Government roadmap out of the lockdown has consigned the April 3 performances of Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain at the Yorkshire Event Centre to history.

Other dates on the nationwide Car Park Tour booked originally for before April 12 have been rearranged after the proposed timing of the Government’s four-step plan necessitated a later itinerary.

Seventeen locations will accommodate the tour, ranging from racecourses to sports stadia, showgrounds to an airport, an exhibition centre to country houses, but no new space in the diary could be found for the Great Yorkshire Showground show in Harrogate.

By contrast, the April 5 performance of the live-action version of Barmy Britain at Harewood House, near Leeds, has been switched to Sunday, May 2 at 11am.

Tickets holders have been notified of the changes but tickets are still available via, priced at £39.50 upwards, plus £2.50 booking fee. Further information can be found there too.

Heads you lose: Horrible Histories’ King Henry VIII will not be heading to Harrogate after all

The Barmy Britain tour will present two actors playing a multitude of classic characters from barmy and horrid British history, taking in Queen Boudica, King Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin, Queen Victoria and plenty more besides.

Based on Terry Deary’s broad-humoured historical books of the same name, Horrible Histories have transferred from page to stage for 18 live shows presented by Birmingham Stage Company, as well being made into a musical sketch comedy television series.

In the Covid-safe Car Park Tour show, on tour from April 13 to May 3, families sit in their cars watching the actors on stage and on a large screen while listening live on their radios and, if so inclined, honking their horns in appreciation.

Birmingham Stage Company and “concept creators” Coalition Agency “plugged the pantomime-less gap” with Horrible Christmas and now they are teaming up again for two Horrible Histories tour shows: Barmy Britain and Gorgeous Georgians & Vile Victorians.

Neal Foster, actor-director of Birmingham Stage Company, will be joined on stage by Morgan Philpott. I’m over the moon to be back on tour with Barmy Britain after its hugely successful tour last summer,” he says. “It’s weird and wonderful to be performing in car parks and to see the audience having fun behind their windshields. We can’t wait to get back out there”.

Harewood House, here we come: Morgan Philpott, left, and Neal Foster , will take a humorous journey through history in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain on May 2 on the Car Park Tour. Picture: Mark Douet