THE GLITZ and the glamour of a gala opening night built the crowd up to fever pitch at the RST as David Walliams and Robbie Williams got off the team limo at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Welcoming these superstars and the eager crowd to the evening’s big match was a lush green pitch replacing the traditional red carpet as paparazzi camera bulbs flashed away adding to the excitement of this ‘Premier League’ encounter.
My children and I are ushered through the school gates, there’s just time for pre-match drink and then on to the field of play. The pre-match anticipation is palpable as excitement mounts in the stands but kick off is delayed as superstar Robbie is taking his seat, waving at the whooping fans below.
Heads are turned at the circle where he and Walliams are sat but not for long as the company open with ‘Ordinary’ a heart-warming song with a cheeky working class sentiment and a catchy tune that made me think of Madness’ Our House. And following this great opener, eyes remain firmly glued on the stage for this triumphant debut.
Directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, with what could be a great pop album of songs by Robbie Williams and his hit-writing partner Guy Chambers together with Chris Heath, David Walliams’ popular story of cross-dressing young footballer Dennis (well played by Jackson Laing who set a high benchmark for his peers in a shared role) has been superbly adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill.
Mom has packed her bags and Dennis, left behind with his downbeat truck driver Dad, played by the ever-reliable Rufus Hound, and big brother John (Zachary Loonie), is yearning for a more flamboyant calling than the monotony of life at home.
After breaking the office window of kid-hating headmaster Mr Hawtrey – the villainous role in which Forbes Masson revelled, Dennis finds himself kept behind with the most fancied girl in school Lisa James (perfectly played last night by Asha Banks) . “Is there anyone more beautiful?” sing the chorus. The whole school concur.
Dennis prefers Vogue to the Shoot magazine that Raj wants to sell him at his bargain-filled newsagents so, in detention, he summons all his courage to speak to cool-kid Lisa and, impressed by his periodical preferences, she helps him explore his love for fashion and encourages him to step out of his comfort zone and just be himself. But he becomes Denise and the comedy ensues, especially when his pal Big Mac ( played by Max Gill, who devours this role) develops a crush!
Even Raj, played by the hilarious Irvine Iqbal, who was only ever going to be upstaged by his own eyebrows, doesn’t recognise him. Raj has many laugh-out-loud moments in the book and I was delighted that remained the case in this musical adaptation. Indeed it is only Darvesh’s overbearing mum, in another great comic turn, by the talented Natasha Lewis, who threatens to outdo him for the laughs.
It’s Dennis’ decision to let go of his inhibitions and put on that sparkly-orange sequined dress that cues my favourite number of the night. Disco balls descend and you feel the roof lift as a starship-trooper esque dance troupe strut on to stage to ‘Dance, Dance, Dance!’ to the Disco Symphony song with Dennis and Lisa.
All the dance routines in The Boy in the Dress perfectly encapsulate the mood of the songs. You can tell choreographer Alletta Collins was brought up on a diet of Smash Hits and the NME. And kudos for her innovative use of Raj’s discount price tags for the bhangra beats of ‘Three For the Price of Two!’
Dennis gets expelled for wearing his dress to school but his team-mates rally for him in You Can’t Expel Us All – this song reminded me of Rock DJ but that’s no bad thing.
Indeed, Williams and Chambers, who brought us Robbie’s mega hits Angels, Let Me Entertain You and Feel penned the songs for The Boy in the Dress in two weeks. Well they must work well under pressure because the songs that cover pop, rock and even grime, made this show tick. Williams’ street lyrics and cheeky chappy persona permeated every bar and lyric of the night.
There were roars of laughter, impromptu outbreaks of applause, whooping and even some tears at the more poignant moments. It’s a show that no-one can admit to being unaffected by. It finds a reason to resonate with all of us, on many levels.
Personally, I found the brutal honesty of Dad’s moments with his two sons (brilliantly but subtly performed by Rufus Hound) very moving, especially as we are in Movember month and these issues need talking about.
The show comes full circle when Mr Hawtrey, who had us laughing and recoiling in equal measure in the first act’s angry “I Hate Kids” stomp finally accepts his true self in the camp and hilarious “A Life of Discipline” and peace descends on the piece.
Live theatre like a live football match is a great coming together of all walks of life, singing in unison for the team they support. And trust me, like the footy, it’s better seen with your own eyes than through the TV screen.
But while the high drama of football can go either way, The Boy in the Dress has got the winning formation for you to enjoy.
Tonight’s pools panel verdict? We’re all ordinary and extraordinary. We’re all different but the same. It’s a message that’s sincerely and lovingly delivered by this great musical.
Catch The Boy in the Dress at Stratford before, like all successful sides, it sets off for London.
A few thoughts from my children:-
Beatrice, aged 6, said: “My favourite character was Lisa James. I liked the scene when Dennis goes to her house and they look at her dress designs. The music was really good too!”
Luke, aged 10, said: “This was the best show I’ve ever seen at the theatre. I think the disco ball scene was brilliant. I loved the silver costumes and the dancing in that song.
“Raj and Darvesh’s mum were very funny and provided the comedy moments.
“The choreography in the football matches was very convincing. How they staged the matches with the balls on sticks was brilliant.
“I thought the set design was clever, how the terraced house became a kitchen, then a bedroom.”
Harry, aged 13, said: “I found it very easy to get emotionally invested in the characters such was the great standard of actors who made it so believable.
“The songs brought the story to life too.
“My favourite character was John as I related best to him. And we both like Magnums!
“The character arcs overlapped well. They all go on their own different journeys that bring them to the same destination by the end.”
Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.