Based on a book by David Walliams, the new Christmas-treat musical created by the RSC has all the hallmarks of their next West End hit in the tradition of their Mathilde. The book is by Mark Ravenhill, author of Shopping and F***king and Mother Clap’s Molly House, among other successful and very grown-up plays, and this play is brilliantly constructed and moves along with great pace and wit. With music and lyrics by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath and excellent musical supervision and arrangements by Bruce O’Neill, The Boy in the Dress is a strong show.
As well as being an audience pleaser, the story has more serious themes, addressing the idea that each and every one of us is different and that social conformity to restrictive standards diminishes people. Everyone has a right to be himself or herself. And so Dennis likes fashion and wants to dress up like the Mum who is seen to deserted him, his older brother and his dad. When Lisa James, the girl everyone in the school adores and/or lusts after, finds out his secret and dresses him up in a gorgeous and striking dress, it makes him feel good; and when she convinces Dennis to put on a wig and pretend to be her French pen pal much hilarity ensues. Until, of course, the ruse is discovered and the conservative nature of the townspeople turns them and his school friends and his repressive, bullying headmaster against him. And it is not just that he is a boy in a dress with all the transgressions that that might imply. It is also that he is not wearing his regulation school uniform! By then the audience really cares about Dennis and wants to see him, somehow, triumph.
So the play has touching dramatic conflict and relatable themes; and it progresses through its dialogue and action and also its songs. It carries remarkable punch for a story that is, in some ways, very direct and simple.
The score is well-integrated into the action and very well performed by the band led by Alan Williams, and there is very fine choreography by Aletta Collins. The set by Robert Jones is one of the stars of this show, evocative and highly theatrical, and is brilliantly complemented by the lighting design of Mark Henderson.
Rufus Hound gives a nuanced performance of the abandoned, hurt dad and his journey to understanding of and real communication with his sons; Natasha Lewis is touching, charming and affectionately believable as Darvesh’s “cool” Mum, and Charlotte Wakefield does a standout turn both as the deserting Mum and the French teacher, Miss Windsor. Forbes Masson presents us with a hugely hissable, bullying villain with a surprise twist; and Irvine Jobal is noteworthy as Raj.
The greatest praise must go to the kids playing Dennis (Oliver Crouch the day I attended), his loyal friend Darvesh (Eghan Dattani that performance) and Lisa James (Tabitha Knowles at my performance). All three carried their roles with aplomb: acting, dancing and singing with great energy and professionalism and I thought that Oliver Crouch had a particularly fine voice.
Full credit to the RSC for choosing this material for their holiday children’s show. Greg Doran has directed brilliant entertainment with a fine message for all us children. As I like to say, Greg Doran can do no wrong!
- Music and Lyrics by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath
- Book by Mark Ravenhill
- Based on the novel by David Walliams
- Director Gregory Doran
- Choreographer Aletta Collins
- Cast Includes: Oliver Crouch, Rufua Hound, Ethan Dattani, Natasha Lewis, Irvine Iqbal, Tabitha Knowles, Charlotte Wakefield
- Venue: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
- Until 8 March 2020
- Photo by Manuel-Harlan