INTERVIEW: Edgy playwright Mark Ravenhill on creating RSC’s The Boy in the Dress

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Mark Ravenhill
Writer, actor and director Mark Ravenhill has written the book for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s much-anticipated Christmas musical, The Boy in the Dress. During a sneak peek of the show in rehearsals recently, Mark tells Gill Sutherland about turning David Walliams’ charming children’s bestselling book into a stage spectacular

It’s not often Herald arts ventures to London, but at the end of September we were invited to see The Boy in the Dress in progress at the RSC’s Clapham rehearsal rooms. There composer Guy Chambers, musical director Bruce O’Neil, designer Robert Jones, choreographer Aletta Collins and director Gregory Doran were on hand to speak about the production before we were treated to the cast performing showstopping number Disco Sympathy (it was ace, by the way!). Over coffee Herald arts also had a lovely chat writer Mark Ravenhill and head of literary Pippa Hill. (Mark did most of the talking – except where indicated.)

The young cast from the Boy in the Dress pictured with David Walliams, who wrote the original children’s book

Whose idea was it to do The Boy in the Dress and, Mark, how did you come on board?
I was the RSC artist in residence in 2012/13, and part of the landscape at the company is that traditional Christmas family show. So I started to think what would be good for that. I asked friends what their kids loved reading – and I kept getting back ‘David Walliams’ – I hadn’t realised how big he was.
I went to a bookshop and the first title that leapt out at me was The Boy in the Dress, which has such Shakespearean resonance to it. I read it and loved it; and realised it had the right amount of characters and depth of story. Walliams takes you into what it’s like to be a child.
Pippa: We both loved it – it’s got an amazing arc and rhythm to it and is very moving.

And you’re making it into a musical…
Musicals are a great way of celebrating every department of a theatre company. Every single department – costumes, wigs, set builders, marketing – has to work full pelt to get on board so I thought it’s a great way of celebrating the RSC because it must have one of the biggest collection of builders and makers of any theatre.
But it’s the emotional heart of the book that is most important, so those things must only be there to amplify that. And the run-through bits we’ve seen so far you can see that’s definitely true – the funny bits get more extravagant and funny; and the emotional bits more gutting, there are some moments when you’re just weeping.

Music composer Guy Chambers, director Greg Doran and David Walliams in rehearsals for The Boy in the Dress. hotos RSC

The story is not unlike Billy Elliot – but that is grittier and more political, where is this getting its edge from?
David’s world isn’t that almost Ken Loach-type world that Billy Elliot is set in. He creates his own world. There is real emotion, and real darkness but there’s also this high comic style, so quite a lot of the characters are quite heightened. It has a wide palette, there are moments when it’s gritty and then it can go into an almost Beano comic exuberance. It’s quite a distinctive tone, and we wanted to find a theatre language that didn’t iron all that out.

In the book David Walliams has quite a distinctive authorial voice – adding comic asides – are you replicating that?
One thing that you do lose is the voice of the narrator sitting with you reading you the story. In an odd way the music sort of does that, but in a different sort of way. The action goes from spoken dialogue into the heightened moment of the song; you get different shifts in register.

Has David been involved in the creative process?
I knew David a little bit, he’d been to see quite a few of my plays and he’d often written me a little note afterwards saying how much he liked it… Initially the rights weren’t available but when they became available we started talking about how we might approach it, and he said I just love musicals – and he pointed out one little sentence when Dennis first tries on a dress and it felt like they were in their own private musical. And we though great, we love musicals too, and the RSC are very good at doing them, so that would be a good fit.
A while later we started to think about who we could collaborate with on the songwriting and it was David who then got into contact and said he’d bumped into Guy Chambers and he and Robbie Williams both love the book and would like to get involved. We knew they would bring great freshness to it.

How have you worked together? What’s been the process?
Initially I wrote a first draft of the dialogue and then put moments where I thought songs should be – and so I created the structure and an overall briefing document, and the first people to get that were Guy and Robbie. They disappeared off to Robbie’s studio in LA for a month to write the first set of songs.
Sometimes I’ve been invited to meetings for musicals and they go ‘right we’ve got the songs and a stage model, done dance workshops and oh we realised we need a story…’ It’s such a crazy way round so I felt from the beginning we have to start with the story, and then figure out how the songs and dance further the story. And Pippa’s job is to oversee all that.
Pippa: There are certain points where everyone comes together. We’ve done five workshops and over summer we worked for two weeks on choreographing the football scenes. So we’ll come together, look at what we’ve got then go away and work on our own stuff again before coming back together.

What have been some of the difficulties you’ve encountered?
Doing an adaptation is more difficult as you have to go into someone’s else’s head.
With this it was already well plotted all the elements are doing the right thing in the right place – so it didn’t need a tremendous amount of work. So then really as the book writer it’s learning to move with everybody – the designer, director, choreographer, songwriters – you’ve got to move forward as a team. It is quite an art; we’ve had a few long nights when you strive to make sure we’re all pulling together and pointing in the right direction. We do all listen and have fun together though! When it does all pull together it is quite overpowering – quite a spectacle.

Have you got any favourite songs?
There’s a big old weepy one, If I Don’t Cry, quite near the beginning. One of the challenges of having a child at the centre of the story is you have to get the audience on side and rooting for that character. I watched stuff that did that, like Oliver!. With that, about ten minutes in you have Oliver performing Where Is Love – a child just opening their heart to you, and you are with them.
Actually Oliver has very few lines, he’s often on but surrounded by grown up characters – and it’s quite similar to this really. The grown-up characters are quite big and comic. I knew that we needed one of those numbers in the first numbers and it is a real weepy – when our Dennis, a young soprano boy, sings If I Don’t Cry – it gets to me every time.
Another great one is Disco Symphony which is the first time Dennis tries on a dress – a great big celebratory number.
We had some kids come and see the show and Forbes, who is an associate artist of the RSC, plays the headmaster and he has a number called I Hate Kids and they absolutely loved that – he has that Trunchbull quality, they just love it when adults hate kids!

Does Matilda cast a shadow at all? … People thinking you’re just trying to copy that for commercial reasons?
Pippa: Matilda’s not a shadow more of a halo. My job is to commission and develop all the shows that aren’t by dead writers, so all the Christmas shows. Matilda gave us so much confidence and experience.
[Mark again] It does sometimes cross your mind, oh is this like Matilda? But actually the tone is so different it doesn’t feel like Matilda II, which is a relief.

Mark you’re known for a wide range of work (including edgy Edinburgh fringe shows and TV comedy Vicious) – how does this fit into the ‘Ravenhill canon’?
I’ve written three plays for the National Theatre’s Connections project which were plays for young people; and I’ve written a pantomime for the Barbican. The main thing I’ve been able to bring to it is the work I’ve done with opera, I reworked Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Understanding words and musical structure that I learnt on that kicked in when I started work on this.

Going back to your 12-year-old self – do you identify with Dennis?
I was quite bookish and involved in afterschool drama. Dennis is isolated and missing his mum… so not that much in common. And actually my very normal working-class parents had a dressing up box with lots of old clothes including dresses in it, so I would be Maria from The Sound of Music when I was around six, and my parents thought nothing of me running around in a dress singing ‘the hills are alive with music’. Some days I might dress as a cowboy; it was just dressing up.

Mark Ravenhill

Did you have that ‘I’m different’ thing that Dennis has?
Being gay in the 1970s and 80s was still very different because it was more or less taboo – no one talked about being gay… I didn’t think I was different, just special; whenever it was I became aware of my sexuality I just thought, I’ve been picked out I’m special. And I thought when I’m 18 I’ll go to London and everyone will be gay and amazing and I will have a wonderful time.

It drives me crazy as a parent that my children are punished if their uniform isn’t just so. Do you think we’re getting more conservative?
The central question of The Boy in the Dress is what would happen if a 12-year-old went to school in a dress? It’s funny that just a bit of clothing has that power to turn the world upset down. It is very Shakespearean that somebody can change their clothes and change the world, and make everyone else in that world question things, and lead to the reodering of things. We think we’re liberal, but actually if a boy turned up in a dress it would still turn the world upside down.

What do you hope people will get from seeing the production?
I think the number one thing is joy – it is about something important and relevant, but it’s not at all didactic – it’s ‘let’s celebrate’. I hope people come out on an absolute high, with their feet not touching the ground.

When and where: The Boy in the Dress opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on 8th November and runs until 8th March 2020. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk

  • wicked messenger

    Edgy? Just what audiences want at Christmas. Has anyone asked how ticket sales are going?