Review: The Boy in the Dress (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

David Walliams’ hit children’s book is brought to the stage in an adaptation by Mark Ravenhill, with music by Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams

The cast of The Boy in the Dress, directed by Gregory Doran, designed by Robert Jones, Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

This show featured Jackson Laing as Dennis, Arjun Singh Khakh as Darvesh, Asha Banks as Lisa James, Zachary Loonie as John.
The cast of The Boy in the Dress, directed by Gregory Doran, designed by Robert Jones, Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

This show featured Jackson Laing as Dennis, Arjun Singh Khakh as Darvesh, Asha Banks as Lisa James, Zachary Loonie as John.
© RSC, photo by Manuel Harlan

In these dark pre-election days, when the country seems to become ever more divided, how wonderful it is to settle down to this warm slice of wish-fulfilment and fantasy, where everyone is understanding of difference and where community matters.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's adaptation of David Walliams' heart-warming novel, with a gently funny book by Mark Ravenhill and rousing songs by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers is the perfect antidote to despair and gloom, a show fashioned for children that makes grown-ups feel better.

It is, as fans of both the book and film will know, centred on 12 year-old Dennis, star striker of the school football team, and a boy who feels good wearing a dress. When his new best friend, the much-desired Lisa James, helps him into one of her new creations – a glorious, spangly orange-sequined number – all hell breaks loose. Until it doesn't.

The cleverness of the story is that it isn't necessarily about gender politics, or sexuality. It's about individuality, difference and everyone's right to be loved. The show's trajectory from shock to acceptance is marked with light touches so deft they are worthy of Lionel Messi. It doesn't plumb the depths – there's no real explanation of why Dennis's mum abandons her husband and two sons, and a late plot twist about the school's strict headmaster is not what you'd call convincing – but it has a speed of attack and a stamp of conviction that are positively elating.

Robert Jones provides a giddily enchanting set of miniature moving houses that open up to reveal interior settings. Drawn in black and white lines, they provide a monochrome setting for a town where everybody prides themselves on being ordinary. "If there's excitement/ We're not having any," they sing, in the opening number "Ordinary". "We get up and do stuff/We come home/And everything's OK."

The songs, with their direct, punchy lyrics, are the stars here; they are, as you might expect given their pedigree, pieces of perfect pop, with lyrics that gracefully encapsulate what people are feeling, leavened with wit and a real desire to communicate. The fact that a song for a Francophile teacher contains the line: "For Asterix and petit filou/May I say merci beaucoup" reveals the flexibility and the fun of the compositions.

Ravenhill's script is a triumph too. It feels slightly surprising that the author of Shopping and F***ing and Mother Clap's Molly House, should be so adept at writing a family musical, but he reveals an unexpected gift for cottoning on to jokes that his young audience will love: silly gags about the placing of a ladder, a boy's love for Magnum ice creams which he uses as a bargaining tool, and a pupil who wasn't expelled even though "he put his willy in a test tube" are precisely pitched alongside the more serious stuff about men's inability to show their feelings. The arrival of two swaggering female "Asbo twins", their speech patterns mimicking the street, is a particular delight.

As director Greg Doran keeps things moving along at a lick and is much assisted by choreographer Aletta Collins, who stages two wonderfully inventive football matches in which Dennis saves the day first against the posh boys of St Kenneth's (all vertical stripes, prancing steps and monocles) and the low-arm swinging bruisers of Maudlin Street. They both have the good sense to know that the climactic moment when Dennis's appearance in a dress is vindicated and applauded can be staged in the simplest and most direct way.

The cast all work wonderfully hard, filling the stage with energy and rounding out their characters with affection. Rufus Hound hits the emotional notes as Dennis's Dad, Charlotte Wakefield (as the dotty French teacher) and Natasha Lewis as Darvesh's eccentric mum are amiably funny, while Forbes Masson as the headmaster, singing about his hatred for kids through gritted teeth, is vividly nasty. On the performance I saw, Tabitha Knowles as Lisa James, Alfie Jukes as John and Ethan Dattani as Darvesh were open and appealing and, as Dennis, Toby Mocrei was simply superb, with a clear singing voice and a touching ability to communicate feeling.

If you wanted to criticise, you could argue that The Boy in the Dress is not as subtle as the RSC's last musical hit Matilda. But then Matilda didn't have a farting dog. This show is just as much a hit, an exhilarating assertion of the goodness in people and their capacity for acceptance of difference, at a time when we very much need that sentiment to be shouted and sung from the rooftops.