So the much anticipated successor to Matilda has landed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Is it as good? Not quite. Is it another winner for the RSC? If the standing ovation given by the enraptured audience is anything to judge by, the answer has to be yes.
David Walliams’ book has been adapted by Mark Ravenhill with music and lyrics by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath and is now a musical extravaganza which assaults the eyes and ears in the very best way. The story shoots along with exuberant school children, a child-hating head teacher, fabulously choreographed football matches against super-posh St Kenneth’s and the thugs of Maudlin Street along with unexpected alliances, love, prejudice, tears and laughter and ultimately the realisation that anyone, however ordinary, can be extraordinary – and different.
Twelve-year-old Dennis, the star of the school football team, secretly loves women’s fashion and worries that he is different from other boys. After his Mum leaves home never to return (sadly not explained) Dennis, his brother John and their Dad try to convince themselves that a Mum-free life is fun but Dennis wants hugs not boys’ banter. When Lisa James, the most beautiful girl in the school, meets Dennis in detention, they discover a joint love of Vogue and she invites him home and gives him in an orange sequinned dress - and Dennis is transformed in all senses. Posing as French exchange student Denise, they go to school where cool-kid Denise is accepted into the crew of the hilarious ASBO twins, Louise and Lorna and invited for a McFlurry by the suddenly gentlemanly Big Mac. Naturally just as it’s all going right, it all goes wrong but without giving spoilers away it all ends well.
The RSC has surpassed itself using all the toys at their disposal including dancing houses, moving goal posts and a tremendous seaside scene with a magnificent thunderstorm. The big numbers are fantastic, especially the over-the-top Disco Symphony and the football final, but it’s the quieter moments when Dennis is with his Dad and brother which really tug at the heart.
There are lots of great characters, the double-dealing shopkeeper, the sweet teacher... but it is Dennis, played by the remarkable Toby Mocrei on Press Night; a pale, skinny, sad kid who opens the show on his own before triumphing as his true self, who successfully pulls the heartstrings throughout. Rufus Hound is exceptional as his broken Dad doing his best, voice cracking with emotion while the other hound, a glorious, scruffy, farting mutt skillfully handled by Ben Thompson almost steals the show. Ethan Dattani as Darvesh, Dennis’s cheeky, cheerful friend and his wild, vivacious, embarrassing Mum played by Natasha Lewis are an amusing double act while the whole company exudes energy and confidence.
Yes, there are similarities with Matilda and the depth isn’t there for a tale of tolerance and embracing differences, but The Boy in the Dress is a crowd-pleaser.