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The Boy In The Dress - RSC Theatre Review

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Robbie Williams music in stage show of David Walliams' book
The world belongs to David Walliams, or so it seems, as his children's books become the theme of Christmas 2019.

The Boy In The Dress, RSC, David Walliams, Robbie Williams, Christmas shows
David Walliams' children's story is on the RSC stage

Not only has a stage adaptation of his tale Billionaire Boy just finished at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, but a new UK tour of Grandpa's Great Escape Live opens at Resorts World on December 23 for an arena tour.

In between those two is this highly anticipated Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) version of The Boy In The Dress, which is performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon from now, through Christmas, and until March 8, 2020.

It's an uplifting children's story that was aired on BBC1 last year and carefully approaches not just cross-dressing but also emotions involved with parents getting divorced and feeling like you are out of the ordinary.

But would the humour and sincerity of this story about embracing diversity manage to translate well to the stage?

The Boy In The Dress, RSC, David Walliams, Robbie Williams, Christmas shows
Funny and emotional in equal measure

The RSC's previous success in adapting Roald Dahl's Matilda into a worldwide award-winning musical hit means expectations are high for this new show, and the big-hitters have been called in to work on it.

RSC head man Gregory Doran directs, Mark Ravenhill, co-creator of TV series Vicious has adapted the book for stage, and pop star Robbie Williams has written the soundtrack with his songwriting collaborator Guy Chambers - who worked on Angels and Let Me Entertain You with the ex Take That singer.

And from the opening number, Ordinary, with lines like " we went to London once but found it scary" and "we say we're Labour but vote Tory", it's clear that it's going to be a witty, entertaining show not just for children but adults too.

The Boy In The Dress, RSC, David Walliams, Robbie Williams, Christmas shows
A mix of likeable characters feature in the musical

The scene is set with our main character Dennis amid greyed out paper houses with a school at its centre; all of which move around and open up into different locations that keep the action flowing. As do the cleverly choreographed football matches using a ball at the end of a stick.

It could be any ordinary town, but the emphasis of this show is what's out of the ordinary as Dennis struggles to come to terms with his mum walking out on the family and his burgeoning interest in fashion and wanting to wear a dress, despite being the top scorer on the school football team.

That's why the greyed out backdrop is so ideal to contrast with the bright orange dress Dennis eventually tries on when first dabbling with these feelings. It's a visual metaphor on so many levels about his life being more vibrant, standing out from the crowd and the like.

Football is as much a part of this story as fashion and school life. The audience is pulled into all these various elements through strong likable characters and the antics of farting dogs, a bag of poo being through at the audience and the like - this is a children's show after all.

Rufus Hound plays Dennis' struggling dad, who despite battling with his son over the dress, is still understandable, while Dennis' best friend Darvesh and Darvesh's outspoken mother tend to speak for all of us with their constant support for our young hero.

The Boy In The Dress, RSC, David Walliams, Robbie Williams, Christmas shows
Rufus Hound stars as Dennis' dad

The detail is what makes this show so enjoyable, like the French teacher who rushes off from detention early to catch Pointless or the hilarious "ASBO twins" of Louise and Lorna (an excellent Grace Wylde and Charlotte Jaconelli), who have all the best one-liners.

Most vibrant of all is shopkeeper Raj and his colourful assortment of bargains that he is constantly trying to push, even with a Bollywood-inspired song and dance Three For The Price Of Two.

Talking of the songs, Williams and Chambers along with Chris Heath have created music and lyrics that give this drama a huge boost. The soundtrack makes or breaks this as a musical and it's full of a range of modern styles, often with a catchy hook that will go a long way towards making this a success outside of Stratford upon Avon, in all likelihood on an international scale.

The Boy In The Dress, RSC, David Walliams, Robbie Williams, Christmas shows
Headteacher Mr Hawtrey is a pantomime like character played by Forbes Masson

The strongest tracks range from a 1990's style wistful Is There Anything More Beautiful Than Lisa James? that has a Lightning Seeds sound to it to the rap and grinding tones of A Girl Who's Gonna Be, which is more akin to Little Mix.

When Things Fall About is the emotive anthem sung by Dennis and his friend Lisa when dealing with the fallout, which is the most likely of all the songs to become a hit.

The most rousing though is Disco Symphony when Dennis puts on the dress. Featuring encouraging lyrics to "pose", it's accompanied by a catwalk show of men and women in sparkling silver dresses and headgear surrounding Dennis. It's a suitably standout scene - as it needs to be for such a life-changing moment.

Headteacher Mr Hawtrey (Forbes Masson) is the pantomime villain and although there's obvious comparisons with Trunchbull in Matilda, especially with the song I Hate Kids, Hawtrey doesn't have the same menace and charisma as the unforgettable Trunchbull of the musical.

There's four rotations of child actors playing the young roles and the standard of acting is extremely high. I caught Toby Mocrei as Dennis who was superb and had a wonderful camaraderie with fellow child actors Ethan Dattani as Dharvesh, Tabitha Knowles as Lisa and Alfie Jukes as his older brother John.

What's special about this musical is that its storyline is so out of the ordinary and fits in perfectly with these gender-fluid times. It's not quite got the razzle and dazzle of Matilda or the ingenuity of the RSC's Wendy and Peter Pan, but it has all the makings to be a sure-fire hit.

The Boy In The Dress is extremely entertaining and packed with memorable songs. While adults will feel the emotion of this carefully thought-out show, children will revel in the fun of it all.

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Why? A children's play like you've never seen before by David Walliams and music by Robbie Williams
When: Until March 8, 2020
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon, CV37 6BB
Cost: From 16
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