Review: The Boy in the Dress, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Some seriously big names – David Walliams and Robbie Williams – can’t save the RSC’s new musical The Boy in the Dress at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“Don’t eat my cheese”

There’s no lacking for big names behind the RSC’s big new musical The Boy in the Dress. Based on the novel by David Walliams and adapted by Mark Ravenhill, and with a score by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath, the pedigree is certainly there in this story about Dennis, a young football-crazy boy who decides, one day, that he’d quite like to go to school wearing a dress. But Gregory Doran’s production ends up hitting the crossbar – literally so… – and it is a little difficult to work out exactly why.

Is it in Walliams’ book, where absent mothers get entirely short shrift (as do most women, the character of Darvesh’s mum, who even gets a song, is called…Darvesh’s mum) and notions about celebrating difference only go so far – it’s OK for boys to wear dresses and win football matches, but if you buy a copy of Vogue, then you’re the target for homophobic jokes in the script. Or is it in the score which is full of strangely low-impact numbers, until an Indian man appears – cue the Bollywood song! Or someone puts on a dress – cue the disco number! It can feel that there’s not much sophistication at work here.

The show feels at its best in the smaller details. The running gag about Dennis’ older brother (an excellent Alfie Jukes at this performance) and Magnums is hilarious, there’s some witty work with Ben Thompson’s puppet dog Oddjob, and I loved the ridiculousness of the football team opponents, a real comic-book aesthetic coming into play. And it is undoubtedly well performed, Toby Mocrei deals with the huge demands of the lead role of Dennis with real aplomb, matched well by Tabitha Knowles’ Lisa James as his chief partner in crime. 

But something is missing. This world isn’t quite cartoonish enough to cover the leaps it wants to make. We’re asked to invest emotionally in the paucity of Dennis’ home life with no depth being provided (Rufus Hound is at sea as his dad) and at the risk of spoilers, a late development (and the responses to it) flies in the face of much of what has gone before. And where you’d expect the score to uplift the show and give it texture and interest, too often the songs are blandly forgettable. Sadly, it’s all a bit of a disappointment. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The Boy in the Dress is booking at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th March

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