THE BOY IN THE DRESS
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019
I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant. This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).
This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people. His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals. Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress. Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.
Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles. Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on. A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance. He will knock your frocks off.
The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time. It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.
Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son. Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across). Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John. Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).
The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work. Take that, Gary Barlow! Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today. Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast. Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.
It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress. “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James. You go, girl!
A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too. And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.