Hotly awaited comes this brand-new musical to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a pedigree as long as a dachshund. David Walliams’ book (his first) has been adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill (of Shopping and F***ing fame), with music and lyrics by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. Directed by RSC Supremo Gregory Doran, heading the cast is the inimitable and versatile Rufus Hound, with a fabulous (and I do not use the word lightly) set by Robert Jones and a delicious-sounding band led by Alan Williams. All well and good so far!
And indeed, it’s all well and good for the most part. I’ve not read Mr Walliams’ book but a quick flick at a synopsis suggests that the musical is very true to the original and is a story with its heart fixed firmly in the right place. 12-year-old Dennis is the top scorer in the school football team, but his life has been shattered by his mum walking out on the family home and leaving him with just his dad and older brother John. Whilst Dad sits around indulging in comfort food and John is out doing his own thing, there’s a big mum-shaped hole in Dennis’ life. Dad has burned all the photos of her, save one that was accidentally rescued by Dennis, where she’s wearing that yellow dress that he always associates with her. One day, whilst buying this week’s Shoot! magazine in Raj’s corner shop, Dennis spies an edition of Vogue with a beautiful yellow dress on the cover and he can’t resist buying it. Hoping to gain the attention of the most desirable girl in the school Lisa James, Dennis allows her to dress him up in her new fashion creation, an orange sequined dress; and he loves it. But how will this go down with his friends, family and headmaster? You’ll have to watch it to find out!
In these days where schoolchildren are being taught (quite rightly, imho) that there should be No Outsiders, and society seems to be getting less and less tolerant, this feels like a timely addition to the debate about the human condition. I’m sure there are more plays that examine what it’s like to be a cross-dresser, but this is the first I can remember since Robert Morley and John Wells’ A Picture of Innocence back in 1978, and certainly the first involving a child. Its message of acceptance is simple and clear; it doesn’t erroneously conflate it with homosexuality, and beware of anyone who doesn’t accept you as you are, because they’re likely to be hypocrites. I always guessed that a certain someone would have a guilty secret; I was right.
At its best, this is an irresistibly charming production, with some great flashes of humour, both spoken and physical. The prancing arrival of the posh boys’ football team has you hooting with derision. When Lisa James peeks through Dennis’ bedroom window and he asks how she got there, the hilarious simplicity of the answer almost stops the show. Then there are some great set pieces of music and dance; the Disco Symphony sequence, for instance, is brilliantly staged and the audience raises the roof in response. The football matches are represented with some fantastic footballography, creating a balletic effect out of the beautiful game. And its impishly sudden ending is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a musical.
So it’s a smash-hit, right? Well, no, not quite. I really wanted to love this show from my toes to my fingertips but there were elements that for me let it down. The show wavers between being played very straight and serious in some parts and as pure pantomime in others. The lump-in-the-throat provoking If I Don’t Cry, where Dennis explores his reaction to his mum’s departure, and A House Without a Mum, where the whole family comes to terms with their new status, are full of heartfelt emotion and true humanity. On the other hand, all the scenes with the ebullient shopkeeper Raj, or Darvesh’s outrageous mother, or Mr Hawtrey’s A Life of Discipline number, are pure pantomime, and the balance between the two sometimes feels a little uneasy. Of course, sometimes we have up days, sometimes down, and having a variety of styles reflects that. It’s just that the heartfelt sequences work so well and the pantomime sequences don’t always achieve that.
The story is great, and the tunes are perfectly agreeable. However, some of those lyrics – oh, good Lord. I appreciate that the show is designed to appeal to children – the suggested age for David Walliams’ book is 8- to 12-year-olds. But that doesn’t mean the words have to be dumbed down. For example: the chorus of the Headmaster’s song, I Hate Kids, blandly goes (if I remember rightly), “I hate kids, I hate kids, I really really really hate kids”. Doesn’t give us great character insight, does it? Particularly as in other scenes the headmaster is happy to declaim “Degenerate!” whenever he sees Dennis, which is a rather sophisticated word. Many of the songs throughout the show are sadly littered with inane and uninspired lyrics, and opportunities for more telling words are sacrificed in the quest for a rhyming couplet – learning/learned, turning/turned comes to mind.
And then there’s the character of Raj. It panders to every Asian shopkeeper racial stereotype under the sun, and I felt sorry for Irvine Iqbal being asked to gurn his way through a sequence of embarrassing musical clichés which wouldn’t have made the first draft of a Goodness Gracious Me sketch. Not giving too much away, I hope, but when he donned his sari I truly wanted to look away. That really didn’t work for me at all. And whilst I enjoyed Natasha Lewis’ performance as Darvesh’s Mum (she does have the best line in the show after all), it seemed clear that the adult Asians are portrayed as outrageous/grotesque figures of fun whilst most of the adult Caucasians are portrayed as ordinary, recognisable human beings. If you want to see lovable Asians on stage without patronising them, can I recommend a revival of the excellent Bend it like Beckham?
Despite these not insubstantial issues, there’s no doubt that the show is immensely enjoyable, largely down to a fantastic performance from a gifted cast. For press night, the role of Dennis was played by Toby Mocrei, and he was exceptional. Full of authority, a face that conveys innocence, cheekiness, sadness and that wonderful feeling when you get the attention of the most attractive girl in the school, plus the voice of an angel (yes, Messrs Williams and Chambers aren’t the only ones who can use a cliché), the audience as one rose to give him a most deserved standing ovation at the earliest opportunity. Dennis is a dream role for a child actor and Toby was the star of the night. There are four actors playing Dennis, as there are for the role of Darvesh; ours was Ethan Dattani, also full of confidence, plaintively and affectionately reassuring Dennis that his cross-dressing didn’t make a shred of difference to their friendship in a rather emotional little scene. He also very nicely batted away his mother’s embarrassing pitchside kisses.
As one of three actors playing Lisa James, Tabitha Knowles is another supremely confident young performer; her Lisa creates a strong bond with Dennis, whom she proudly displays in the shops and at school as though he were her extravagant new pet. She also has a great singing voice, nice comic timing and a very engaging persona. And Alfie Jukes’ John is a nicely underplayed Neanderthal dumb-nut, who’ll do anything for a Magnum. I hardly recognised Rufus Hound as Dad, an unhappy, down-at-heel man who doesn’t need any further complications in his life and is insufficiently in tune with his feminine side to come close to understanding Dennis’ fondness for dresses – at first. But when he opens his heart and accepts his son, I swear a bit of grit must have got in my eye and I had to activate my tear duct.
Elsewhere there’s an effective pantomime-villain performance from Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey, strictly one-dimensional and played for laughs, and a nicely loopy performance from Charlotte Wakefield as the useless French teacher Miss Windsor. And I loved Ben Thompson’s very human operation of Oddbod, the dog who farts when he gets excited. There’s one lovely moment when he lets one rip and then looks accusingly at the audience as if to ask, “come on, which of you did that?”
I wanted this to be a great show; I guess I’ll have to make do with it being a very good show. But I’m sure it’s going to be a terrific hit with Christmas families and school parties. It’s playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th March 2020, but I’m sure that’s not the last we’ll see of sharp-shooting Dennis and his shimmying gown. And, on press night at least, the evening belonged to young Master Mocrei.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan.