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The Boy in the Dress

Review - David Walliams and Robbie Williams' The Boy in the Dress at the RSC

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Lightning rarely strikes twice, especially when it comes to new musicals. The RSC have sought to re-create the success of their hit version of Roald Dahl's Matilda, which premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010, with this mildly recycled and lavishly re-heated adaptation of a title by another favourite children's author David Walliams - his debut novel The Boy in the Dress, originally published in 2008. He has so far since published 11 more, several of which have had earlier stage versions, including Billionaire Boy that will also play at London's Bloomsbury Theatre this Christmas, and collectively have seen him topping booksellers' charts of the country's best-selling authors last year. 

Creatively, it has several matches with Matilda, most obviously in sharing a titular child character whose story it tells, and who both come from damaged or broken homes. Neglected Matilda finds refuge in books and her uncommon intelligence; Dennis, the twelve-year-old title character here, finds his own release and relief in football (in which he is a champion striker) and a latent passion for wearing women's dresses, re-establishing an affinity with his mum who abandoned her family and he remembers only from a single salvaged photograph in which she is wearing a yellow dress.

And swapping out headmistress Miss Trunchbull for headmaster Mr Hawtrey, there are similarly villainous undercurrents of hypocrisy and self-interest that will be exposed. Even though Forbes Masson plays him with relish and gusto, he is no match for the man-mountain of distressed femininity that Bertie Carvel summonsed in Matilda.   

The RSC has put together a similar team to tell the story in musical terms, too. Matilda paired television and stage comic Tim Minchin with RSC playwright Dennis Kelly (for whom he previously wrote The Gods Weep); this time the television comedy credentials are covered by David Walliams, while the book is provided by RSC regular (and former writer in residence for the company) Mark Ravenhill, and the songs are a collaborative effort of pop star Robbie Williams and two of his regular writing partners Guy Chambers and Chris Heath.   

But the first thing (and most obvious) thing to say is: this is no Matilda. While that show broke your heart with its yearning truthfulness about damaged, comprised childhoods while also making it leap with joy at its ultimate humanity, healing and hopefulness, this show is more scrappily feel-good in the manipulative way it has been put together. Of course in our new non-binary age where kids are increasingly invited to make their own choices about sexual identity and expression, it has an ultimately healthy message - even if it replays some of the abuse and discrimination that those who exercise it face along the way.  But there is also a big joke played out at the expense of the headmaster that seems to amplify this disapproval in unhealthy ways.  

Neither do the songs provide many compensating pleasures In fact, they mostly live up to the opening number's own title "Ordinary". They are merely serviceable rather than inspired or inspiring, as is the choreography that stages the football matches via a ball that is manipulated by a stick.  

If I have some doubts about the cut and thrust of the story, Gregory Doran's amiable, colourful production offers some passing distractions, with particularly terrific work from a rotating set of child actors (at the press performance, these were Toby Mocrei, Ethan Dattani, Tabitha Knoles and Alfie Jukes). A youthful chorus animates their classmates happily on Robert Jones' delightful pop-up town set, while other adult roles are warmly taken by Rufus Hound, Charlotte Wakefield, Irvine Iqbal and Natasha Lewis. 

The Boy in the Dress is at the RSC to 8th March 2020.

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