Actor and comedian David Walliams has made more than £100 million as a children’s author, putting him up there in the popularity stakes with the likes of JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson, creators of Harry Potter and Tracy Beaker respectively.
There have already been successful stage adaptations of his work, including the hugely entertaining Billionaire Boy, created by the Birmingham Stage Company and currently on tour. The Boy in the Dress was Walliams’ debut novel. Such was its popularity, in 2014 it was turned into a TV film by the BBC. Now, the Royal Shakespeare Company – which enjoyed a smash hit with its stage musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda – is hoping to create another hit stage show out of a children’s novel.
Mark Ravenhill’s new adaptation features music from Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath and is fairly faithful to the original, bustling with lots of schoolboy humour and fart gags, but also paying attention to the more sensitive issues at play.
Football hero Dennis Sims feels different from the other children. When his mother abandons the family home, searching for a female influence, Dennis makes friends with the most popular girl in school. A shared love of fashion leads to him cross-dressing. Discovered wearing a dress at school, he is expelled by despotic headmaster Mr Hawtrey, but his pals eventually rally behind him in solidarity.
Some of the shortcomings of the debut novel are amplified when shifted to the stage. Characters and situations are left underdeveloped and Ravenhill’s adaptation fails to resolve them adequately. Instead, he creates a children’s fantasy. The production lacks the maturity of Matilda the Musical, the RSC’s 2011 mega-hit from Tim Minchin.
More critically – and unlike Minchin’s award-winning score – the tunes are mostly forgettable. 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.
Amid the grey-tinted world of Robert Jones’ inventive set there are some shining, comic performances. Natasha Lewis is great value as an unconventional mother, as is Irvine Iqbal as shopkeeper Raj, spurring the football team on to greater things. Rufus Hound captures the frustration of Dennis’ emotionally constipated father but, despite his best efforts, Forbes Masson’s seething Mr Hawtrey lacks the virtuosity of the likes of Miss Trunchbull.
The evening, though, belongs to Toby Mocrei, who alternates the lead role of Dennis with three other young actors. As Dennis, Mocrei demonstrates a sense of timing, empathy and understanding that belies his youth and a soaring confidence that builds as the story gathers momentum.