David Walliams is a certified sensation. He’s sold over 25 million books worldwide, several of which have been turned into films and TV series, and five of which – Mr Stink, Billionaire Boy, Gangsta Granny, Awful Auntie and The Midnight Gang – have found their way from page to stage. Now, there’s a sixth.
The Boy In The Dress was Walliams’ first book. Published in 2008, it tells the story of Dennis, a twelve-year-old schoolboy – the star striker of his school’s football team – who discovers that he likes to wear girls’ clothes. It was turned into a TV film in 2014, and has now been made into a musical by the Royal Shakespeare Company – the company behind the mega-hit Matilda.
RSC helmsman Gregory Doran directs an adaptation by Mark Ravenhill that stars Rufus Hound, Forbes Masson and more, and that runs in Stratford-upon-Avon until early March. Oh, and the music? The music comes from a certain Robbie Williams – together with Guy Chambers and Chris Heath.
Will Walliams and Williams prove a musical theatre powerhouse to reckon with? Will Doran and Ravenhill skilfully shift the story onto the stage? Will The Boy In The Dress be a Christmas cracker for the critics?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Mark Ravenhill is something of a surprising name to be attached to a family-friendly Christmas musical – he was the provocative playwright behind 1995’s in-yer-face classic Shopping and Fucking. Does he manage to tone it down in his adaptation of Walliams’ well-loved children’s book?
He does, and some critics think he’s done a magnificent job. The show is “a bouncy, boisterous and above all humane celebration of those who dare to be different” for Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★) it has “delirious comic dynamism” and for Howell Davies (The Sun, ★★★★) it’s “a tale of acceptance, joy and empowerment which will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside”.
“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,” says Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★). For her, The Boy In The Dress is “an exhilarating assertion of the goodness in people.”
Not everyone agrees, though. For several critics, the show pales in comparison to the RSC’s gold-standard musical hit Matilda, and to other musicals that tread similar ground – Billy Elliot and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The Boy In The Dress “feels like an inferior version of all three,” reckons John Nathan (Metro, ★★), while Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★) complains that it’s “not particularly original” and has “no very distinctive characters”.
Most critics end up somewhere in between. It’s “reasonably and seasonably enjoyable” for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), but “it needs strong distinguishing features”, and these it “signally lacks”.
“It’s not a musical that radically advances the form but it’s a warm-hearted show that, in championing self-expression, instantly enlists our sympathy,” concludes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). Or, as Clive Davis (Times, ★★★) puts it: “It’s not sensational, but it gets the job done.”
Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers have collaborated extensively in the past – the duo co-wrote most of Williams’ biggest hits, including Rock DJ, Feel, Millennium, Let Me Entertain You and Angels. Their work here, though, which also includes contributions from Chris Heath, definitely divides the critics.
A few reviewers think their songs are superb – Billington reckons that the “buoyant Britpop-style score” has “immediate appeal”, while Crompton calls them “pieces of perfect pop, with lyrics that gracefully encapsulate what people are feeling, leavened with wit and a real desire to communicate”.
Some, though – the majority, in truth – are disappointed. For Nathan, the score “only fleetingly generates the kind of energy that makes their chart music so irresistible”, and for Cavendish, several are “so recycled in feel they’re a little bit Mr Stink-y.” “Where are the heart-stopping songs of the sweeping magnitude of Robbie’s Angels?” he asks.
“The tunes are mostly forgettable,” agrees Paul Vale (The Stage, ★★). “You Can’t Expel Us All makes a strong 11 o’clock number, bearing a striking resemblance to Williams and Chambers’ hit Rock DJ. But it is an exception – Ordinary is the title of the opening number, but it could also be used to adequately describe the score as a whole.”
There is, however, plenty of praise for Doran’s direction. It “captures the quick passions and anxieties of childhood perfectly and has remarkable emotional rigour” according to Curtis, and features several on-stage football matches that Crompton calls “wonderfully inventive”.
The lead part of Dennis – the cross-dressing super-striker schoolboy – is distributed between four different actors – Oliver Crouch, Jackson Laing, Tom Lomas, and Toby Mocrei. It was Mocrei who took on the role on press night, and Mocrei that makes the headlines.
He’s “astonishing” according to Billington, “charmingly assured” and “clear-voiced” according to Curtis, and “demonstrates a sense of timing, empathy and understanding that belies his youth” according to Vale.
“He’s enchanting, whether laying bare his soul or glinting with just the right modest degree of glee as he swishes into the groove of a spangly, tangerine-colour outfit,” extols Taylor, while Marmion calls him “a beacon of light” and Cavendish calls him a “bright-eyed, clear-voiced, nimble-footed and sweetly expressive” performer. “He gets 10 out of 10,” concludes Cavendish.
There’s praise here and there for the rest of the cast. Rufus Hound “hits the emotional notes” as Dennis’ down-hearted dad according to Crompton, while Forbes Masson is “explosively funny” as a kid-hating headmaster.
But there are also murmurs of discontent about some of the stereotyping on show. “A headmaster who hates kids?” writes Cavendish. “Fine. But the pushy Asian mum and money-raking Asian shop-keeper? Hmm.”
It’s another show that splits the critics. For several reviewers, this latest Walliams adaptation is an absolute delight – both Sarah Crompton on WhatsOnStage and Paul Taylor in the Independent award it the full five stars. Plenty of critics remain unconvinced, though – there’s a two-star review from Paul Vale in The Stage, plus curmudgeonly three-star ratings from Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph and Clive Davis in The Times.
Everyone agrees that Toby Mocrei is marvellous in the main role of Dennis, and that Doran’s production has vats of verve and vigour. But they can’t make up their minds about much else. Robbie Williams’ music is either instant ear-worm or forgettable fluff, depending on who you read, and David Walliams’ novel is either right-at-home on the Stratford stage, or pales in comparison to what has gone before it. Let’s call it a draw, then.