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Billionaire Boy: interview with Luke Sheppard

We caught up with Luke Sheppard, who directs 'Billionaire Boy The Musical' – a triumphant treat for the whole family, based on the bestselling book by David Walliams.

Culture Calling: Who is Billionaire Boy?
Luke Sheppard: Billionaire Boy tells the story of Joe Spudd, the fictional richest boy in the world, and it’s about him learning the realities of that. He’s a young boy who wants to be ordinary – he doesn’t want the trappings of wealth and to be defined by that, he wants to be seen as an individual in this world. So he chooses to go to a new school and we see the escapades that follow.
CC: What’s the production like?
LS: This is the first time the book has ever been adapted for the stage. A lot of David Walliams’ work has been adapted brilliantly in other productions, but I think we’re the first to do a musical. And it’s a musical through and through, we’ve got loads of great songs that have been written by [Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler] who have experience primarily in the pop world – they wrote a lot of hits, including for Girls Aloud. It’s a small company of only 10 people, but it’s got a good heart and loads of energy.
CC: What does David Walliams think?
LS: David’s really supportive of theatrical adaptations. Funnily enough he did the same university course as me, about a decade before! His heart seems to be in theatre, and so he’s been very supportive. He’s also been great at letting us get on with doing what we need to do and taking our own approach to it and he’ll be down in Southampton before it opens.
CC: Is it a faithful adaptation, or have you taken some creative liberties?
LS: I think what’s brilliant about David’s writing is that it already has a heightened language, which translates brilliantly to stage and so I think our adaptation is faithful in terms of spirit, tone and humour, even if we do deviate occasionally from the book. But actually the majority of those deviations are part of the editing process – we can’t tell a whole novel’s worth of story on stage, and the structure of a musical is different to a book. So we edit and shape and sometimes evolve ideas, but always with a sense of responsibility to the writer and what makes the material brilliant. Hopefully audiences will find an enormous amount they recognise, but also a few unexpected treats and surprises – like the musicality, for instance.
CC: You’ve got some amazing credits to your name, like Olivier award-winning In The Heights – is it very different directing a kids’ show?
LS: I’m privileged to do my job and I love to keep myself busy, so over the course of a year I do somewhere between six and ten shows, and I’m proud of how much they range in terms of scale and the audiences they speak to. Every year I take on a Christmas project, and I love it because they have a really eclectic audience. I don’t really think about whether there’s a difference [directing a kids’ show] – it’s all about telling stories and it’s just the type of story you’re telling that varies. The worst thing you could do when making young people’s theatre is dumb it down and talk down to them. You always want to aim higher, getting them to step up to what you’re offering. Young people are really clever and on the money, and they’ll let you know if something’s not working for them. I guess as a director your already-huge sense of responsibility is even greater when you’re making stuff for young people and families, because you want this to be the start of a much longer conversation, and for them to keep coming to the theatre for the rest of their life. If you get it wrong, they might never come back!
CC: Are there young actors in the company, i.e. children playing children?
LS: We thought about this and experimented both ways. On a previous show I did, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, we cast young people because the drama was very connected to the young characters coming of age. In this, we felt it was more connected to conversations about wealth and inequality, and actually some of the young adult actors we met really connected to this, and so we have young adults playing those parts – but they do all have a very childish spirit! Whereas Adrian Mole was about casting children with an adult spirit, these guys are adults who behave like children – in the most wonderful way. There’s a great pleasure in watching these actors embrace that silliness, which I think both young adults and children will take delight in.
CC: What’s next for you, Luke?
LS: As a director you’re always thinking ahead. I’ve actually got another show on the road at the moment, called Murder for Two, which comes to London for Christmas before going back out on tour, which is exciting. There’s also a project I’m working on for next year, which will keep me very busy – but we’re not allowed to talk about it, which sounds a bit po-faced so I’m sorry about that… But that takes me out for 2019!
CC: As a Londoner, what’s your hot tip for the capital?
LS: Yes, there’s an amazing tapas place called Tozino, which is on Maltby Street. It’s a Spanish restaurant in a railway arch, quite under the radar. It does incredible wines and tapas.
CC: And how about when you’re on tour?
LS: In Manchester, the Ancoats area is really buzzing at the moment. I worked at a theatre there called the Hope Mill earlier this year, which is one of the most exciting regional theatres in the UK – they’re a small operation but the productions are fantastic – and they also do excellent pizzas before the show, which are definitely worth trying.

Billionaire Boy The Musical premières in Southampton before touring:

Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Southampton
19 November – 6 January 2019 

The Lowry, Manchester
14 February - 17 February
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
20 - 23 February

New Theatre, Cardiff
26 February - 2 March