The SpongeBob Musical - Southbank Centre
A beloved cartoon washes ashore on London’s Southbank
Translating such a well-known animated character for the stage seems like an impossible task, let alone when that cartoon is a sponge of the square variety but somehow this musical washes away those questions, and with a simply outstanding performance from Lewis Cornay in the titular role, the piece evolves far beyond its 2D origins.
The inhabitants of Bikini Bottom are faced with their biggest peril to date as the local Mount Humungous begins to erupt, threatening life as they know it. Chaos descends but SpongeBob armed with his fry cook spatula and his two best friends Sandy Cheeks the Squirrel and Patrick Star, must band to together to save the day. It gently introduces themes of misinformation, climate change and racism to younger audiences, the volcano being only one of the threats to our heroes - SpongeBob taking on the government was not on my 2023 bingo card.
The musical has a wildly stacked set of composers for its numbers, the likes of John Legend, Sarah Bareilles and David Bowie to name just a few, but this collaboration of music icons has served the production well, delivering catchy number after catchy number that repeatedly spark moments of unadulterated joy. ‘Just A Simple Sponge’ written by the Panic! at the Disco team and sung exceptionally by Cornay, is one such number. It beautifully encapsulates the character of SpongeBob and when combined with some ingenious glow-in-the-dark sponge choreography the output is electric.
As already mentioned Lewis Cornay is perfect as the squarepanted hero, his wide-eyed, relentless optimism oh so infectious, ensuring even SpongeBob novices are brought along for the adventure. It is impossible not to root for his character, particularly when Cornay employs his excellent physicality, capturing the cartoonish humour and proving you do not need to look like a sponge to embody one. He is worth the ticket price all on his own - genius casting. As Sandy, Chrissie Bhima is equally impressive. Her delightful Texas drawl and wholehearted passion for science are wonderfully effervescent, Bhima serving up generous doses of charm and compassion in every scene that she is present in. The pair make for a captivating duo, especially as they scale the volcano in ‘Chop to the Top.’
Stepping into the four shoes of Squidward is Tom Read Wilson (sharing the role with Gareth Gates), the costume design working wonderfully to bring the character to life. Wilson does well with the role, comfortable in the exacerbated and sunken outlook that the tentacled character has on the world around him. His voice is strong, clearly revelling in Squidward’s big number ‘I’m Not a Loser,’ though a little more work on the tap dancing might have been welcome. Another recognisable face in the cast is Divina De Campo as the villainous, single-celled Plankton, equipped with evil cackle and all. Campo is excellent throughout, especially when partnered with the versatile Hannah Lowther’s Karen the Computer, the couple bickering as they seek to rekindle their relationship - Lowther surely due a turn in a major role in the near future.
The ensemble do a fantastic job of portraying a wide range of familiar characters but despite their efforts, the production lacks the scale needed for this production to truly shine. The design is on the whole impressive, bright and colourful costumes are in constant rotation and the set is sensibly designed, utilising plastic waste to create the underwater environment but I couldn’t help wanting more. I craved a wow factor moment that never arrived. The same goes for the sound design. Even in the biggest numbers the sound was muted and subdued, on occasion the actors competing against the score and the pre-recorded backing vocals. Compromises have to be made for touring productions of course, but on this occasion, the producers have played it a little too safe.
Despite its flaws and imperfections, this musical is as pure as they come. As a possible first theatre outing for children, I can think of few shows better. It will inspire, excite and delight any audience it plays to - its heart being its greatest strength. Allow yourself to be swept up in the endearing world of SpongeBob and see for yourself what a talent Lewis Cornay is.
Running in London until 27th August
On tour until 9th September - Tickets
Photography - Mark Senior
Originally Published by London Theatre Reviews