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REVIEW: The Boy in the Dress

The RSC’s new musical has it all – David Walliams’ magic storytelling, Robbie/Guy Chambers smash hits, and a story that chimes with a modern desire to celebrate difference in a kinder way.

Hot-off-the-press after a star-studded opening in Stratford-upon-Avon, including Robbie Williams and Ayda Field, Guy Chambers, Natalie Imbruglia, Cerys Matthews, Alan Carr, David Baddiel and Rocketman star Taron Egerton, here’s our verdict.

The Boy in the Dress production photos, 2019, by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

From football to glitter discos balls; silver 1970s style jumpsuits to a farting dog, Gregory Doran’s euphoric and emotionally-charged The Boy in the Dress is a whole lotta fun – but you’ll need a hanky. I dare you not to shed a tear when you hear If I Don’t Cry!

The RSC’s brand-new musical contains many great comic performances, balletic football sequences and a sharp script by Mark Ravenhill, with some incredibly infectious tunes written by pop star Robbie Williams and song-writing buddy Guy Chambers.

Natasha Lewis (Darvesh’s Mum) with company

Earlier this year on the RST stage Lucy Phelps’ Rosalind put on a pair of leather pants as a boy in disguise in As You Like It; and now Dennis in The Boy in the Dress goes to school dressed as a girl. Boys dressing up as girls on stage in Shakespeare’s day was commonplace as they played all the roles.

Today a boy in a dress is seen as more subversive and this is what’s explored in David Walliams’ first children’s book. The Little Britain star says things have changed a lot over the last 11 years when initially people were “resistant” to the title.

Toby Mocrei (Dennis) and company. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

But The Boy in a Dress isn’t a complex story about “issues” or gender politics, it’s a feel-good celebration of difference, identity and being yourself – best summed up by Dennis’ best-friend Darvesh, a jolly Ethan Dattani: “Dennis, it doesn’t bother me if you wear a dress…It would be boring if everyone would be the same”.

This theme is mirrored in Robert Jones’ canny set design. In the beginning the show opens with an ode to mass conformity, Ordinary. Singing the lyrics, “We are ordinary. We shop at Lidl and watch the telly” the ensemble dance around rows of identical grey miniature model houses  – which incidentally, children can cut out in the programme to make their own mini model set.

Tabitha Knowles (Lisa James) and Toby Mocrei (Dennis)

The set quickly moves from dull grey to full-on technicolour after Dennis tries on an orange sequin number in Lisa James’s bedroom. The RST stage is transformed into a 1970’s style Saturday Night Fever-style disco inferno – with flashing lights, glitter balls and androgynous dancers in jumpsuits. Sweetly Dennis bonds with would-be fashion designer and school heartthrob Lisa James over their mutual love of Vogue in detention – freeing Dennis to be himself. “Not nearly enough boys are into fashion,” she laments.

Irvine Iqbal (Raj) and Jackson Laing (Dennis)

Denns turns to Vogue after his mum leaves the family home. I loved the scene where the 12-year-old, who’s also star striker in the school football team, pretends to read Shoot! in Raj’s corner shop while covertly mesmerised by a yellow dress on the front cover of the top shelf fashion mag – reminiscent of one worn by his mum.

Dennis’ forlorn dad, played by a suitably downbeat Rufus Hound, has burnt all photos of his wife, stopped cooking and is living on ice-cream and frozen chips. Dennis is told not to talk about feelings or cry. When he asks older brother John – Alfie Jukes – for a hug, the teenager tells him: “Brothers do wedgies…Mum’s do hugs”.

Toby Mocrei (Dennis) and Rufus Hound (Dad)

Forbes Masson gives a show-stealing turn as severe Scottish headmaster Mr Hawtrey. His I Hate Kids chantand cabaret-style finale, A life of Discipline, are hilarious. Natasha Lewis is vibrant as Darvesh’s “embarrassing” mum, with equally warm and exuberant comic performances by Irvine Iqbal as shop-keeper Raj and Charlotte Wakefield as excitable French teacher Miss Windsor.

Forbes Masson (Mr Hawtrey)

The RSC’s Artistic Director has drawn out some wonderful naturalistic performances from the child actors, most notably Toby Mocrei’s endearing Dennis. One of the most moving moments is when he sings, If I Don’t Cry – the lyrics continue “…I will break inside.” *Sob

Toby Mocrei (Dennis)

Lisa – an excellent performance by Tabitha Knowles – has the whole school at her feet, including both brothers, and a tribal classroom song in her honour, ‘Is there anything more beautiful than Lisa James?’ The script is pepped up with modern street lingo and humour.

I liked the scene in which sassy girls, Louise and Lorna, try to initiate Dennis – dressed as Lisa James’ French exchange student ‘Denise’ – into the ‘sisterhood’ with their song A Girl Who’s Gonna Be, incorporating the ‘woah’ dance with its grime vibes and attitude. It’s also worth noting that one of the four actors playing Dennis is local boy Tom Lomas, a member of Playbox Theatre in Warwick.

The company. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Gregory Doran’s beautifully directed production breathes new life into the book and touches a nerve – a desire to be kinder to one another. In a fever pitch finale, the audience cheers enthusiastically when the rest of the school football team wear dresses, following Dennis’ expulsion. It’s definitely striking a chord with audiences, judging by the standing ovation at the end of press night. All night afterwards I found myself humming the instantly memorable, A life of Discipline…

The Boy in the Dress is running at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Mar 8 2020. For tickets go to: rsc 

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