THE BOY IN THE DRESS
From the Novel by David Walliams
Book by Mark Ravenhill
Music & Lyrics by Robbie Williams
& Guy Chambers
Directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
8 November 2019 - 8 March 2020
Reviewed by Andrew Whiffin
Looking to emulate the triumph of their 2010 Matilda, still running in the West End, Greg Doran has taken another children’s bestseller, David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress to work into this year’s RSC Christmas musical. With a script by Mark Ravenhill and songs by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath, it has a lot going for it, and, judging by the increasing enthusiasm of the youthful audience with whom I saw it, this promise looks to have been largely fulfilled.
For a start, the young leads are natural and appealing. 12 year old Dennis Sims (Toby Mocrei, on the night I saw it – one of four actors playing the part), star of his school football team, is attracted to the picture of a dress in Vogue because it reminds him of his missing mum, and is befriended by the school heart-throb Lisa James (an excellent Asha Banks) who is an aspiring fashion designer ... which is how he ends up (however plausibly) wearing a dress to school.
The message of inclusivity is happily embraced by the audience, and by the rest of the cast apart from nasty headmaster Mr Hawtrey (Forbes Masson), and even he is brought into the fold when he is discovered to have feet of clay himself. The rest of the football team rush off to don dresses too and reverse their 5-0 halftime deficit against the bullying opposition – and Doran has devised a wonderful convention of puppet-football, in which the ball is piloted on a stick to where it is being kicked or headed to, which works beautifully. Another gem is the dog belonging to the family of Dennis’s friend Darvesh (Arjun Singh Khakh), whose puppeteer Ben Thompson produces some uncanny interactions with the rest of the cast.
Dennis’s dad is played touchingly by Rufus Hound, as he comes to terms with his broken marriage and re-forms his relationship with his teenage sons. Irvine Iqbal offers a slightly caricatured but winning corner-shop owner, Raj, and there is a very funny double-act from Grace Wylde and Charlotte Jaconelli as the ladettes who decide whether or not ‘Denise’ is going to be accepted by the girl-gang.
Robert Jones’s set is a bewildering array of houses, walls, doors and cityscapes, rising from the stage or flown in from the wings or the flies, and then unfolding into beds, chairs and desks, and even a row of beach huts. It is a triumph of stage management.
The songs don’t seem to have yet become earworms for me, but I liked the idea of the progression from the opening number Ordinary, defining the conventional which is to be challenged, to the finale Extraordinary, and the ensemble rises to the challenge of delivering them and Aletta Collins’s rich and varied choreography.
There are times when showbiz overrides the emotional thrust of the narrative, but it is always a delight to see so many children in the audience – some of them coming to the theatre for perhaps the first time – finding it so rewarding.