Birmingham Stage Company’s stage presentation of David Walliams magical creation’ Gangsta Granny arrives at Cardiff’s New Theatre from July 21 and features born and raised South Wales Valleys actor Justin Davies as Ben.
Justin first started acting when he was 12 years of age and starred in Sky One’s comedy drama series Stella for 6 seasons from 2012-2017. In 2013, Justin was nominated for the Breakthrough Award at the BAFTA Cymru Awards for his role in Stella.
Justin graduated in 2018 from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where he gained a BA Hons in Acting, having also starred in Tim Burton’s 20th Century Fox film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in 2016. Justin has since gone onto work with the Birmingham Stage Company on two previous occasions, Tom Gates: Live on Stage (2019) and Horrible Christmas with Car Park Panto (2020).
Ahead of Gangsta Granny’s arrival at Cardiff’s New Theatre, Justin took time out to chat with Andy Howells about the show.
As an actor, how did you cope with lockdown?
It was tough Andy, I’m sure as you know being in the entertainment Industry as a journalist, everything stopped. I always knew film and TV would come back, but for British theatre? I was speaking to a few producer friends of mine, and they were seriously worried this could be the end. Especially after finishing one job in the theatre and the pandemic happening, I was worried if I’d ever be working in theatre again, which would obviously limit my ability to work, because as you know, theatre is a massive employer in the UK.
It was a very difficult and uncertain time for the theatre industry, particularly here in Wales.
Yes, that’s what I struggled with as well, because we look to The Sherman Theatre, The New Theatre, The Wales Millennium Centre and a few smaller venues such as Porters, The Other Room and I was following them all via social media and they were all trying to get things on, but then they were cancelled.
I was lucky enough to be involved with a project for The Other Room, but it was masks on and social distancing. There was no audience, and it was filmed. It was amazing to be working, but it was not what you become an actor for.
After the pandemic it must have been a relief to get back on the stage in Gangsta Granny?
It’s an amazing job and the beauty of touring is you get to see so many new towns and theatres. During the pandemic, we couldn’t even travel, at some points in Wales we were only allowed to go out for as much as an hour a day. So, the fact that we can travel again is exciting, it has been amazing and with such a wonderful play as well, a pleasure.
Do you look at touring with a fresh vision now?
Absolutely. I found out not long after I had finished Tom Gates in March 2020, that I would be playing Ben in Gangsta Granny. That was great, we were in rehearsals but then the pandemic hit, the dates were cancelled, and it was all taken away.
So, now we’ve been doing it for a year. It’s been one of those jobs where you truly are thinking “I’ve been so lucky to be doing this because this could so easily have been taken away due to a predicament out of my control!”
Tell us about Ben. What’s it like playing him?
Ben is an 11-year-old boy and I’m 25 now! It’s a bit different playing someone my age but I’ve played kids characters before. It’s a pleasure tapping into seeing a world through pure eyes.
The story starts in Ben’s parents’ house, and his parents are about to go to a dance class. Ben doesn’t want to go and spend time with his granny and would rather be with his friends. There’s a line I say: “If I was a little bit older, I could be sitting at the bus stop chewing gum in the rain.” That’s just amazing because that’s what he wants to do.
Have you met David Walliams who wrote the original Gangsta Granny book?
David came to see the play while Birmingham Stage Company were in London over Christmas, and he was lovely. He came along and saw the piece, gave a speech after the bows and was very complimentary. I’m a big fan of his work and just to meet him, talk about the play and its themes, it was a great pleasure to do that.
Gangsta Granny is a bit of escapism for the family, isn’t it?
it is no secret that it’s aimed at kids, but like I’ve said to my friends and family it’s more like a Disney film. You can sit down as an adult and watch Moana, Toy Story and The Lion King and get the animation and the comedy the kids will find funny, but the story has a real heart to it.
The thing I’ve taken away from it, after the pandemic is that Ben views his gran as a very boring person who farts a lot and does funny things, but in essence he begins to fall in love with the relationship he has with his grandmother because he discovers she is a jewel thief. I mean, what can be cooler than finding that your ‘nan is one of the greatest jewel thieves the world has ever seen?
Ben goes on this plot with his grandmother where they plan to steal the crown jewels. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but the end isn’t so nice. What I’ve realised with this story is the value older people have in my life and that’s what I want the kids and the parents to get, because in this show, the parents don’t go to see Granny either.
It’s a lesson to everyone to truly treasure the older people we have in our lives. The stories they tell and the wisdom they have is truly greater than anything young people have.
Are there any favourite moments from the show?
Ben’s parents want him to be a dancer. Ben is very firmly against the idea, he just wants to be a plumber, he’s Billy Elliott in reverse.
Ben’s parents sign him up for a dance competition which is hosted by Strictly Come Dancing star Flavio Faviolioli and Ben is thrust into this competition without any clue what a dance is. The audience tend to enjoy that. I love physical comedy and that’s a great moment in the show to have fun with that.
You do have a taste for theatrical comedy with Gangsta Granny and having previously done Tom Gates?
Yes! I was very fortunate to do Horrible Histories’ Horrible Christmas with Birmingham Stage Company as well. That was where we did a pantomime and took it to car parks across the UK and we performed on a truck. It was filmed, and the audience could watch us on the big screen while we were on a truck and the sound came through the car radios, so people could watch us in a COVID secure zone although later sadly there were cancellations. But to bring that to people during Christmas 2020 was an amazing thing!
Would you like to do more comedy in the future?
Well, I learned so much from my time in Stella and the actors there including Ruth Jones and Steve Speirs. It’s no secret that I love performing comedy. It’s fun and I’ve been very fortunate to play comic characters as it’s something I take great pleasure in. As an actor you want to try different types of characters though and I’d love to play a villain one day!
As an actor from Wales, what are you looking forward to most about bringing the show home to Cardiff?
I’m coming home with the Gangsta Granny tour and its almost a year in!
It’s a great pleasure performing at Cardiff’s New Theatre because for me that’s where I went to watch pantomime when I was a kid. To perform for a Welsh audience and be part of the energy that they bring is going to be incredible, a laugh and amazing.
From a personal point of view there will be so many schools from the valleys where I’m from that are also coming to see the show. It’s no secret that the Valleys is quite a deprived area and that the kids don’t get much exposure to the arts. For many of the children coming to the show it will be their first exposure to theatre. Just to give kids a taste of what theatre is or about is an honour for me being a working-class boy from the valleys. I can’t wait for them to come and hopefully give them an impetus to come to the theatre again.
- Gangsta Granny plays Cardiff’s New Theatre from July 21-24 2022.
- Age Recommendation: 5+ Running Time: 2 hours including an interval (Timings are approximate & subject to change).
- For ticket details visit Cardiff New Theatre’s website.