The Boy in the Dress – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Book: Mark Ravenhill from the novel by David Walliams

Music andLyrics: Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath

Director: Gregory Doran

Reviewer: James Garrington

There’s an almost tangible air of excitement about the foyers of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre before Press Night for The Boy in the Dress. It as though people feel they may see something special – and they are not disappointed.

Dennis is 12 and he is the star player for his school football team. Then one day his mum leaves home, and things get tough. He misses her – but all he has to remember her by is a photograph of her in a yellow dress. When he spots a similar dress on the cover of Vogue magazine, and again in the sketchbook taken into detention by Lisa James, the most beautiful girl in the school, he starts to wonder – is it possible to like football and dresses?

David Walliams has a knack of writing about important topics in a way that makes them accessible for younger generations. The Boy in the Dress is a great example, with its underlying themes of loss and unlikely friendship, ostracism and ‘othering’, hypocrisy and acceptance of difference – and although a cynic may question the message here about the motives for acceptance it’s all done in such a fun way that it hardly matters.

The first thing that strikes you is the excellent set designed by Robert Jones, which seems to contain a surprise at every turn – and just when you think you’ve understood how it works it produces another gem that draws a gasp from the audience. Of course, that would be nothing without the lighting to go with it by Mark Henderson which does exactly what it needs to do to create maximum effect.

The cast is universally excellent, with an outstanding young cast in particular. Toby Mocrei (Dennis) handles with sensitivity what could be seen as a tricky role for a young person, showing an excellent singing voice and good acting skills. Alongside him, we have Tabitha Knowles (Lisa James) and Ethan Dattani (Dharvesh), all of them showing a maturity of performance despite their age and all names to look out for in future. Rufus Hound gives a well-judged performance as Dad, outwardly tough concealing his inner hurt and love for his children, with Charlotte Wakefield doubling as Dennis’s caring but absent Mum and a memorable Miss Windsor. Natasha Lewis gives us a wonderfully eccentric and very funny Dharvesh’s Mum, Forbes Masson creates a suitably overbearing and bullying Mr Hawtree, while Irvine Iqbal is a typical corner shop owner, Raj. Although exaggerated slightly for effect, the characters are all easily recognisable and will be people that the younger audience members can easily relate to.

Underpinning all of this is the music by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath – and it’s a wonderfully appropriate score with some catchy numbers that may well have a life outside the show too. There’s pop music and ballad, some witty and some moving, all adding to the story just as the score is meant to do, and with some beautiful lyrics. The score serves well to keep the show grounded too, and just as you think it may be getting too cheesy and predictable it hits you with a song that makes you sit back and reflect.

With high energy choreography by Aletta Collins and possibly the best puppetry since War Horse, this is a must-see show for audience members young and old.

Look out Matilda – you’ve got competition.

Runs until 8 March 2020 Image: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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