Martini rating: 🍸🍸🍸🍸🍸
An irreverently funny and astonishingly executed stage adaptation of a story of an ordinary boy who dares to be different. Resulting in a wholeheartedly entertaining and severely meaningful evening of fun – promoting positive change and tackling gender stereotypes.
Produced in-house by the RSC like Matilda the Musical, The Boy in the Dress is a hilarious, quintessentially British, comedy-musical, with an effervescent score, endlessly flashy choreography, sensational performances and a heartwarming message at its core. Adapted from David Walliams’ smash-hit book of the same name, the narrative follows Dennis, a seemingly ordinary 12 year old boy, who is the school’s star striker and loves football. But when his Mum walks out on his Dad, Dennis struggles without a female presence in his life. The only reminder he has of his Mum is a photo of her at the beach in a yellow dress, he sees a similar dress on the cover of Vogue in Raj’s newsagents and buys it. Before befriending the most beautiful and coolest girl in school, Lisa James, who is into designing her own dresses, the two thus form a bond over fashion and couture. What ensues is a witty exploration of Dennis discovering it is okay to be different and to be into both football and fashion. Though, after breaking the school uniform code with the help of his alter-ego, french exchange student ‘Denise’, he does have a few run ins with headmaster Mr. Hawtrey. With all new songs from Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers, a script by former RSC playwright in residence Mark Ravenhill and direction from RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, The Boy in the Dress is brought glitteringly to the stage.
The RSC have done a wonderful job in place making their entire theatre space for the occasion. All ages can play on the football tables in the bar areas, or draw on one of the school blackboards. There’s a Boy in the Dress themed Christmas tree, made out of sign posts relating to Dennis and his life, with Dennis in a dress adorning the top of it, whilst the costume exhibition has been disco-diva-fied and a telephone box outside is now filled to the brim with footballs. It’s the extra-special touches that really do count when it comes to a family show, enriching young theatre-goer’s experiences from the ground up. Aside from this, the production’s design itself is exquisite. Dennis lives in a supposedly ordinary town in an ordinary house, so the piece opens with a greyscale backdrop of ‘ordinary houses’. Throughout the first song ‘Ordinary’, the town’s inhabitants in greyscale costumes wheel out grey houses, appearing and moving in a uniform fashion. These houses beautifully and intricately fold out to create the various set pieces and locations such as Dennis’ room and bed, as well as his family kitchen, achieved with acute attention to detail. Eventually we start seeing splashes of colour in the ensemble costuming, firstly with an all pink colour scheme and then each town inhabitant starts to divert from the ‘uniformed’ scheme, until all ensemble members look totally unique, demonstrating the show’s thematic of individuality. Though we all seem ordinary, there is no such thing as ordinary, we are all extraordinary and unique. (This idea of non-uniformality tying in wonderfully with idea of Dennis going against the uniform code and the later change of his football kit to a dress).
To tackle the challenge of bringing football and the unpredictability of it to live theatre, the creatives have superlatively built puppetry and physical theatre into the work, (particularly Puppetry Director Laura Cubitt). The balls are often attached to sticks and moved around by a puppeteer/player, whilst physical theatre lifts are used at poignant match moments to highlight the intensity and importance of the action. With goal posts hydrologically appearing from the floor. Oddbod, the cheeky, charming and absolutely adorable dog owned by Dennis’ best-friend Darvesh, springs to life as a puppet, handled brilliantly by Ben Thompson. His delivery is full of realism and comedy, remaining captivating and a favourite with kids and adults alike.
In this age of ‘Cheer up Charlie’ (a national campaign that saw several West-End musicals welcome Charlie, a nine year old boy who was being homophobically bullied, into their theatres in a bid to make him feel better and let him know that being a boy and being into musical theatre is cool), it’s great to see so many men on stage in a musical and, most importantly, in prominent parts. Of the four child leads on each night, three are male, (ten in total), showing any young boys in the audience that they too could be on stage, acting, singing and dancing if they wanted to. Which brings us onto the wonderful positive messages to promote positive change woven into this piece. As aforementioned there are many males in prominent parts, particularly Dennis, his older brother John and their Dad, (Rufus Hound). This trio of men and no Mum, fantastically pushes to the forefront single parenthood from a male perspective. The three displaying phenomenal chemistry, Dennis being played on this evening by Toby Mocrei and John by Alfie Jukes. Hound, dextrously displaying heart-breaking moments of vulnerability in contrast with trying to present a strong vizard for his sons, as that’s ‘what men are supposed to do’. This, and the moment where Dennis misses his Mum and breaks down in tears and is subsequently told to stop crying ‘because boys don’t cry’, marvellously demonstrates the ultimately damaging effects of toxic masculinity. Gender stereotypes like this are therefore prodigiously shattered throughout. Boys can cry, boys can wear dresses and boys can dance and sing if they want to, what wonderful messages to be delivering to children today, alongside themes of persistence/never giving up and teamwork. This doesn’t mean that girls are left out though, there’s a whole number about girl-power and independence delivered by the ‘cool girls’, when considering if Dennis, (Denise) can join their crew. It is also worth mentioning that this production is big on diversity, with a diverse cast/ensemble. Characters such as Raj, Darvesh and Darvesh’s Mum as well as an overall plethora of accents/ethnic backgrounds, result in a more apt than most snapshot of multiculturalism in Britain.
As this piece is also being created with a young cast, at the RSC and and through in a similar methodology to Matilda , it is inevitable that the work shares similarities with its predecessor. It is Forbes Masson’s Mr. Hawtrey, a kid-hating and ebullient headmaster that gives off serious Matilda vibes, Hawtrey manifesting as a caricatured, Trunchbull-esque, paraodorical character. Whilst the idea of a boy in a dress, provides endless similarities to both Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and and Billy Elliot, touching lightly and innocently on the Queer and LGBTQ+ community. Yet The Boy in the Dress cannot be dismissed on grounds of unoriginality, the work feels endlessly modern and fresh and the school kids even ‘hit the woah’ during one of songs, (ask your kids). It is Mark Ravenhill’s sharp and witty book combined with Aletta Collins’ bold and reactive, modern choreography that allows the show to jump vibrantly off the pages of David Walliams’ book. Both are masterful at their crafts, Collins’ choreography is complex, sharp and endlessly entertaining, whilst Ravenhill captures Walliams’ intended hilarity and heart down to a t. The score by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers is likewise, particularly revolutionary. The music is a powerful and catchy, eclectic mix with divine harmonies, powerful ballads, and largely lively ensemble numbers that are all intoxicatingly delivered, the show presenting a wonderful homage to disco at the end of act one.
As far as performances go, it is the child stars that carry this show. The youngsters we saw, Toby Mocrei, (Dennis), Tabitha Knowles, (Lisa) and Ethan Dattani, (Darvesh) have incredible presence, Mocrei and Knowles’ voices excel, they are each emotive and exceedingly powerful actors with an immense grasp of their craft, demonstrating wondrous consistency and clarity. Alongside them, teenager Alfie Jukes (Dennis’ brother John), has an equally as sensational and tragically underused voice, due to his self-assured delivery, Jukes asserts himself as certainly one to watch. As aforementioned Hound is a wonderfully dexterous actor, with the voice to back it up, the complexities of his delivery conveys the pains and anxieties of single parenthood fantastically. Whilst Irvine Iqbal, (Raj), Natasha Lewis, (Darvesh’s Mum), Charlotte Wakefield, (Miss Windsor) and Forbes Masson, (Mr. Hawtrey) carry the comedy, they are each exuberant performers, displaying unimaginable comedic timing and again, more than adequate voices. Furthermore the malleability and strength of the ensemble as a whole, ensures this production is sharp, witty, fast-past and of course, hugely entertaining. The benchmark for the calibre of the performances set by the young actors, is certainly met by this talented and hardworking ensemble supporting them.
To conclude, The Boy in the Dress is a must see, new British musical with a serious amount of heart and we are dying to see it get a much deserved London transfer. To catch it in Stratford-Upon-Avon click here.
Rufus Hound – Dennis’ dad
Irvine Iqbal – Raj
Natasha Lewis – Darvesh’s mum
Forbes Masson – Mr Hawtrey, the headmaster from Dennis’ school,
Charlotte Wakefield – Miss Windsor.
Dennis – Oliver Crouch, Jackson Laing, Tom Lomas and Toby Mocrei.
Darvesh – Ethan Dattani, Shivain Kara-Patel, Kassian Shae Ahktar and Arjun Singh Khakh.
Lisa James – Asha Banks, Tabitha Knowles and Miriam Nyarko
John – Alfie Jukes and Zachary Loonie
Other cast includes: David Birch (Maudlin Street Captain), Hannah Fairclough (ensemble), Max Gill (Big Mac), Ahmed Hamad (ensemble), Ryan Heenan (Rory), Charlotte Jaconelli (Lorna), Alim Jayda (ensemble), Christina Modestou (Miss Bresslaw), Alexander Moneypenny (Gareth), Clancy Ryan (ensemble), Cilla Silvia (ensemble), Jack Anthony Smart (Swing), Ben Thompson (Oddbod), Jamie Tyler (St Kenneth’s Captain), Georgie Westall (Swing), Grace Wylde (Louise).
From the novel by David Walliams
Adapted by Mark Ravenhill
Music and lyrics by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers
Directed by Gregory Doran
Robert Jones (Designer), Aletta Collins (Choreographer), Mark Henderson (Lighting), Guy Chambers and Tom Deering (Orchestrators), Bruce O’Neil (Musical Supervisor and Arrangements), Alan Williams (Musical Director and Arrangements), Paul Groothuis and Tom Marshall (Sound), Laura Cubitt (Puppetry Director) and Pippa Hill (Dramaturg).