I have no doubt that The Boy in the Dress is going to be as great a commercial success for the RSC as Matilda was (and still is). For a start the combination of the names of David Walliams, whose children’s book the musical derives and Robbie Williams who contributed to Guy Chamber’s music and lyrics, is bound to sell thousands of tickets.
Director Gregory Doran ensures that the piece is swift paced and full of visual stimulus. Robert Jones’s cardboard cut-out style sectioned moving backdrop and the moving multi-purpose stage blocks which create lots of stylish transformations of mood, location and atmosphere are gorgeous. The costumes are sumptuous. As you might expect in a mainstream musical there are lots and lots of costume changes, many of which give the actors very little time to change and the variety of costuming is extraordinary, giving constant stimulus. The disco scene costumes are glitzily amazing. The music is very well played and some of it is quite catchy – just what you need.
There is some originality, too. Oddbod, a puppet dog splendidly manipulated by Ben Thompson, is always great to watch. It’s a challenge to show five a side soccer matches on stage and the RSC’s solution to the problem is brilliant. The dancing is slick and varied. The many lighting changes beautifully handled. Scene transformations are impeccable.
This is a production, then, which I thought had outstanding production values. I didn’t much like the story and the text which I felt was superficial, sentimental and often simplistic. Serious issues are mentioned but skated over, for example the struggle of working class single parent families, the mother’s leaving the family turned here into a catchy song, the need for talk at times of psychological crisis, the exploitation of gender identity, the difference between a boy in a dress and adult cross dressing. But I guess it’s not meant to be even approximate to reality. When I saw it the second time I decided not to take my brain with me and leaving it at home meant that I enjoyed it more.
Because there are several minors in the cast there are several young people performing these roles on different nights. By chance I saw the same cast on both occasions. All four of the boys who play the lead, Dennis, were in Matilda and therefore have RSC experience. I saw Toby Mocrei and on the second performance, only a week after I had seen him previously, he had developed his role very considerably. He is going to be splendid. I saw Tabitha Knowles as Lisa James and could not believe that she was as young as she must be; it was a stunning performance. So was Zachary Loonie’s John. The adult actors worked beautifully as an ensemble. Even when I thought the writing was superficial and simplistic (as with the characters of Raj (Irvine Iqbal), Mr Hawtry (Forbes Masson) and Dad (Rufus Hound)) I thought they did what they could to make their sketchy characterisations enjoyable and entertaining. Natasha Lewis as Darvesh’s mum didn’t have to compensate for weak writing. She was brilliant every time she appeared: for me the star of the show.
This is family show but the production elements are so good that adults will enjoy it, too. I loved details like the goalposts rising up from the floor and then disappearing back into it so that they couldn’t be detected. There’s plenty of slapstick, a Rees-Mogg joke, some naughty swearing, a little bit of smut, a fair dose of schoolchild humour, lots of jokes against teachers. Something for everyone, really.
This show will win awards. Come and see it. Why not come and see it one day and either King John or A Museum in Baghdad at the Swan theatre the next? Or if you just want some good fun see Jack and the Beanstalk at the splendid Attic Theatre, just the other side of the river from the RSC There will be a warm welcome for you at Moss Cottage when you can end breakfast with our gold award winning marmalade (our first gold this spring at the World Marmalade Awards this year).