Back-to-school with The Boy in the Dress star Forbes Masson
Versatile Scots actor Forbes has gone from reading David Walliams' books to his kids to starring in the RSC’s new musical adaptation playing scary headmaster Mr Hawtrey.
As an RSC Associate Forbes Masson worked on major productions over 11 years, including Michael Boyd’s critically acclaimed cultural marathon Histories Cycle in 2006. Eight of Shakespeare’s History plays adding up to more than 24 hours were performed in chronological order, one after the other, in Stratford-upon-Avon and then the Roundhouse, London. Guardian critic Michael Billington cited it as “one of the great events of modern theatre”.
Married to singer Melanie Masson, an X Factor finalist in 2012, Forbes lives in North London and the couple have two children. Their talented 12-year old daughter Rua and 10-year-old son Ramsay are already following in their parents’ footsteps. Ramsay was in Fun Home at the Young Vic last year, and has just landed a role in the new Tom Stoppard play, Leopoldstadt, to be directed by Patrick Marber at Wyndham’s Theatre in London from next January; while 12-year-old Rua appeared in Johnny English Strikes Again with Rowan Atkinson.
Forbes trained at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, (formerly the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) with fellow actor and The Good Wife star Alan Cumming with whom he wrote and performed cabaret and surreal TV situational sitcom The High Life, chronicling the eccentric passengers and useless cabin crew of a fictional Scottish airline.
You may have seen him on TV in Hamish Macbeth, Monarch of the Glen, as rock-band manager Art Stilton in Channel 4’s 1998 cult comedy The Young Person’s Guide To Becoming a Rock Star, Dead Boss, Shetland and Catastrophe.
The dad-of-two returns to the RSC stage in comedy musical The Boy in the Dress, now previewing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Muddy goes back to school with Forbes – luckily we can relax, he’s out of character! He talks about the influence of Carry-On film actors, best mate Alan Cumming and being back in Stratford.
What’s it like to be back in Stratford?
It’s brilliant, really – and brings back so many happy memories!
I started my first season at the RSC in 2003 and was here on and off until 2011 – both my children were born during that time and spent time growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s a great place for kids.
It’s all changed since I was last here. The Other Place, that was The Courtyard. We opened The Courtyard with The Histories Cycle, as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was closed for refurbishment.
Looking back at The RSC’s 2006 Histories Cycle, what was it like for you? Between a company of 34 you all played 264 parts in the eight plays that make up Shakespeare’s Histories, wore 800 costumes, used 150 weapons and guns, and a staggering 15 litres of stage blood for each cycle – that’s pretty impressive!
It’s extraordinary to think back to the Histories when we were doing a weekend of eight shows. It was such an amazing experience being together as an ensemble for those two years. I‘d known Michael Boyd for a long, long time – I first worked with him at the Tron Theatre when I lived in Glasgow,
How did you and Alan Cumming meet?
We were in the same class at drama school in Glasgow back in 1982. I remember seeing this guy in class and thinking: ‘he looks really interesting’. We had quite a good laugh and rapport. We started doing cabaret in the first year and did it for three years to get our Equity cards, then the Edinburgh Festival. It was extraordinary – we had this comedy telepathy. We created these characters, Victor and Barry, and wrote a TV sitcom called The High Life about air stewards.
We met up again when I was with the RSC and we’d taken As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet to New York in 2011. Alan is coming over from America, where he lives, to do Endgame (by Samuel Beckett) with Daniel Radcliffe at the Old Vic in January 2020 and we’re meeting up to discuss some ideas.
Are your children big David Walliams fans?
Both Rua and Ramsay love reading his books. Ramsay was really thrilled as The Boy in the Dress is one of his favourites – he’s a big football fan. He couldn’t believe I got the part, neither can I!
Two years ago, I was in Big Fish with Kelsey Grammar (star of US TV series Frasier) at The Other Palace in London. During this time I was invited to do a workshop for a new musical, which turned out to be for The Boy in the Dress. I got these tracks sent on the phone written by Guy Chambers. I asked: ‘who’s that singing them?’ It was Robbie Williams! The songs are fantastic! Even after the workshops, I wasn’t sure if I’d got the part. I really only found out in the middle of this year.
Your character Mr Hawtrey is a very harsh headteacher who expels Dennis for wearing a dress, yet he himself wears a dress in secret. Is there anyone you’ve drawn from in terms of style – Grayson Perry, or any of David Walliams’ own TV characters?
I always try to put myself into the characters when I do a play. I don’t like to look at other versions, I take it from my own experience.
All of the character’s surnames in The Boy in the Dress are surnames of Carry-On film actors like Miss Bresslaw and Miss Windsor – and it’s set in The Williams’ School named after Kenneth Williams.
My character is named after the actor Charles Hawtrey. I watched a lot of his performances on film and discovered there are some amazing videos of 1960’s sitcoms where he played all these characters, including an old lady…I don’t want to give any more away!
What has influenced your reading of Mr Hawtrey – does he have any interesting quirks?
There’s this Pink Floyd album called The Wall in which you hear a teacher yelling in a Scottish accent. He sounds a bit like him. I wanted him to be a military man and make him quite strict and scary. I hope he is…he’s the villain of the piece!
The Boy in the Dress is a comedy about a 12-year-old star striker Dennis who likes fashion and dressing up. As a dad you must welcome a play about smashing stereotypes that celebrates individuality.
The Boy in the Dress has a beautiful heart to it. The brilliant ensemble make all the dance routines seem effortless, and the principals are all amazing! We are having great fun working together. There is such a high level of extraordinary talent in the company.
Dennis is interested in fashion and just happens to like wearing a dress. It means he can be himself. When you’re young, dressing up is a form of escape from the world – allowing yourself to have fun. Having this other world is part of Dennis being himself, and helps him deal with his mum leaving home. It seems wholly appropriate that The Boy in the Dress is being performed at the RSC. It goes back to the tradition of Shakespeare plays like Twelfth Night where you have boys pretending to be girls, and girls pretending to be boys. It’s part of our theatrical history.
Suppression comes from the Victorian era. Before then it wasn’t a big issue – in Shakespeare’s plays there was a lot of cross dressing. People need to be allowed to express who they are. Suppression comes out in many ways like anger or depression.
In the beginning the story’s all about people being ordinary but it’s the realisation that everyone is different and has their own individuality by the end. That’s what makes the world a more interesting place when people express difference. We are currently living in a world that is less tolerant of people’s differences.
What were you like at school?
I was quite nerdy. It was the 70’s and I had this long, red hair and thick dark spectacles. I did get quite a lot of bullying.
Were any of your head teachers as strict as Mr Hawtrey?
Yes, at high school we used to get the belt – although I never did – and there were a few really nasty teachers who used to throw wooden blackboard dusters around.
Who inspired you growing up?
I had a great primary school head called Mr Bingham who was really lovely. I remember once he brought a tortoise into assembly and bizarrely had stuck a TV aerial onto it. I can’t quite remember what that was all about. I had a few favourite teachers – Mr Cameron, a music teacher, who looked like Roy Wood and Miss McKinnon who used to let me perform plays in the classroom.
Can you recall the moment you first wanted to be an actor?
I had a great teacher called Mr Challinor who used to take us on trips to the theatre. I was lucky that I first saw Wildcat theatre company as a 16-year-old – and that’s when I knew the life I wanted. Wildcat was a massive force in Scotland at the time. It was this left-wing revolutionary theatre company and all the actors were rock musicians. That’s when I started writing my own stuff. My father sold gravestones and I wrote a black comedy musical called Stiff inspired by that.
The designers at the RSC must be having ‘a field day’ with this production…
Definitely. The costumes have a real cartoon-y feel and there’s things flying around the stage. The design by Robert Jones looks really lovely.
Have you had any notes from David Walliams?
No. David Walliams has been around-and-about – but he lets us get on with it. It’s nice to see him. I’ve been a fan of his since he was in Rock Profiles – I used to love that. It was one of my favourite comedies! It’s a thrill to be working with him. I’ve always been a fan of Guy Chambers and it’s great to be working with him too.
One day Robbie came into see us. That was really scary! But it was lovely to see him. He loved what he saw! Robbie, Guy and David have all been really supportive.
What else are you enjoying about the show?
The kids are phenomenal! They will break your heart – there’s no weak link.
It’s great to be working again with Greg (Doran, Artistic Director of the RSC). We last worked together on Morte d’Arthur. Mark Ravenhill is just brilliant, Alan Williams is an amazing musical director, and Aletta Collins’ choreography is fabulous.
I’m working with many people I have worked with before behind-the-scenes – it’s like coming back to a family, it’s very special!
Do you have any advice for audiences coming to see The Boy in the Dress?
Bring your hanky – it’s very moving…
To find out more check out the trailer: