INTERVIEW: David Walliams on The Boy in the Dress at the RSC

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David Walliams and Jackson Laing as Dennis in The Boy in the Dress. Photos by Andy Gotts and Manuel Harlan
David Walliams with Herald arts editor Gill Sutherland

Tis the season to be jolly… and have your photo taken with David Walliams. The actor, author and comic was in Stratford-upon-Avon ahead of the launch of musical The Boy in the Dress at the Royal Shakespeare Company, based on his book. David must have been the nation’s most snapped celebrity of the weekend as he popped into Waterstones to sign books, stayed hours after Friday night’s first preview of the show to greet fans, and did a hilarious Q&A session at the Swan Theatre followed by more photos and flourishes of his trusty pen in books keenly proffered by young readers. During the day on Friday (8th November) he also found time to talk to Herald arts’ Gill Sutherland (and for a selfie, naturally).

What do you think of the show so far? I’m actually going to watch the first preview tonight, but I’ve seen lots of rehearsals and so far I’ve been really heartened and very impressed. The songs are really confident and brilliant – and all the things that other people have brought to it, including actors, the choreographer, the storytelling and the adaptation by Mark Ravenhill. It’s been great because sometimes you are trying to make something and there are big problems you can’t solve, or you hope people don’t notice, but there hasn’t been anything like that this time.

When you’re watching are all eyes on you as the originator, and is that weird? Sometimes. People think of writers as being very controlling – like Alan Moore not wanting his name on the Watchmen series recently. But I came from working on television where it’s very collaborative, so I’m not precious about things. I’m thrilled that it’s become a musical, as it feels so different to the book… It brings an emotional dimension to a story, and it’s transformative – with great songs. As I can’t write songs or sing I’m totally in awe of those who can.

The ensemble photographed by Manuel Harlan

I hear there are some very emotional heart-rending songs – are you a crier? I am. And then I think ‘Hang on David, you know this story isn’t real because you made it up so why are you crying?!’… Well it just hits you, and kids singing songs is so emotional. I don’t know about you, but when Oliver sings Where is Love? I am in floods of tears, and this has that same effect when Dennis sings If I Don’t Cry.

When you had that call from the RSC saying they were interested in doing the show what were your thoughts? I thought ooh that’s very posh – the RSC! [David says this as if channeling Frankie Howerd]

Is there an extra expectation because of that branding? I think there is probably is – the RSC’s work is always great quality and they’ve had all this success, and it does create expectations, but that’s only a good thing. They do things really well and they take time in putting something together and they have all these incredible resources and the best people in the world working here – so a show has more of chance. Also it means you’re doing it for artistic reasons not just commercial. I’m sure everyone wants the tickets to be sold, but it goes beyond that, everyone wants this to be of a really great quality.

The Christmas shows at the RSC tend to up the ante – especially Matilda. Were you thinking about what they had done with that, and bringing that magic to this? I love Matilda, I’ve seen it lots of times; there’s always a child somewhere who’s at the right age to take, one of my nephews or my son. I love it, and I’m mates with Tim Minchin [who wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda] and obviously I’m the world’s biggest Roald Dahl fan as well. To me the whole thing is heaven. And it’s interesting because it’s been such a juggernaut running for ten years – so no pressure! I know there are superficial similarities: an RSC musical based on a children’s book, but there’s no thematic similarity, and it’s a completely different creative team. I don’t feel like we are trying to emulate that, although if the show did have that success we would dance in the streets!
I feel this is different, it’s a very emotional story and the theme of it is quite a serious one – identity and feeling different – so I don’t really feel it’s connected to Matilda in anyway. We certainly haven’t gone ‘Ooh let’s try and do a Matilda’ – and try and include a Miss Trunchbull or whatever.

Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey

How involved were you with making the show?
I’ve worked a lot with them, but you’ve got to respect people’s jobs – Greg [Doran] is a very collaborative – he’s a theatre director he has to be – he wants to know what I think about it, but he wants to know what everybody thinks of it, whatever their job is. Everyone’s opinion is valid. I’ve worked with Mark Ravenhill [who wrote ‘the book’, the story between songs] but he’s a very successful playwright so he doesn’t want me hanging over him going ‘Ooh you should put a comma there’ – how annoying!
And I don’t know anything about writing songs – except the odd silly comic one with Matt Lucas – Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams know what they’re doing. Everyone’s aim is the same – for the show to be really good and give everyone an incredible night at the theatre. There’s been no conflict, everyone wants the same thing: is the storytelling clear? Do you know what’s happening at each moment? Is it emotionally engaging? These are things that we all work on together, and refine it. The telling of the story is the most important thing.

Do the team look for your approval? They do, but I don’t put myself on any kind of pedestal. I’m just another person who wants it to be good. It’s quite a simple story. I don’t think the fact that I came up this story makes me anything special. I don’t think it’s like I’m any sort of reclusive genius, I’m just some bloke who wrote the story; I’m no more important than anyone else that’s creatively involved.

Lots of your books have been adapted for stage and screen. Does this one feel any different? It feels very different. It’s a very personal and emotional story, and sometimes I think you do your best work when you don’t know what you’re doing – this was my first children’s book so I had no sense of who was going to read it, how it was going to be received. I was just writing just instinctively what I thought what was going to be a really interesting story – I didn’t second guess what kids aged eight to 12 wanted to read. At the time, 12 years ago when it came out, I don’t think people were desperate to read a book called The Boy in the Dress, because it seemed like quite a challenging subject matter for some people.
The book feels different to me because it’s special as it was the first one and probably the one that is most highly regarded and also it’s the Royal Shakespeare Company! It’s Mark Ravenhill! It’s Robbie Williams! It’s got a sort of pedigree that is hard to beat – not saying that there aren’t great theatrical adaptations of my other books… This is different, it’s a musical and it is working at some deeper level – it’s got to have a greater appeal across the spectrum of people; it’s the big RSC Christmas show and it feels bigger than anything I’ve done. It feels like the first night might be the biggest night of my career in a way because I don’t know if anything gets much bigger than this – unless maybe Steven Spielberg makes a film!

Back in the day you studied drama at Bristol University – what would student you have made of this happening at the RSC?
I came here when I was 14 or 15 with the school to watch Jonathan Price, Sinead Cusack in Macbeth with David Troughton playing the porter [1986/87 season]. It was the first Shakespeare I’d ever seen and I can remember it in complete detail. It was mind-blowing. And I’ve met those three actors – I actually worked with David on something – and I told them about seeing it and about how much it meant to me. These things are formative especially if you’re a kid who ends up wanting to act or work in the theatre – you never forget it.
When you’re a kid you don’t really know how the world works and because I loved performing at school, and I would get some of the best parts in the school play, led me to think I was a lot better than I actually was. Then you see a play at the RSC or you go to university, and there’s all these other talented people… you are out in the real world and you think ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was’!
Anyway it’s amazing being here at the RSC, I never thought this would happen – but I’m pretty glad it has. It’s an incredible stamp of approval; and it’s very different.

Do you compare yourself to Roald Dahl? I’m in a different place from Roald Dahl who died over 25 years ago and is a legendary figure, one of the world’s greatest storytellers. I’m just that bloke off Britain’s Got Talent so it’s even more miraculous that I’ve been taken seriously.

If you were coming to the RSC as an actor what role would you like to take on? They’ve never asked me! Shakespeare’s greatest comic role is Malvolio in Twelfth Night – I’ve genuinely never seen it fail. The situation he’s in, and the unrequited love – it’s a great sitcom. He’s not got gags, which is a blessing as Shakespeare’s gags were written 400 years ago and not as funny as they might be. I’ve played a few Shakespeare roles over the years, including Bottom in the West End directed by Michael Grandage [2013]. You get some laughs with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I think Matt Lucas and I would be a good Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek.
And then you’ve got Trinculo and Stephano in The Tempest – I did that when I was a student. I think the really good part, although not a comic role, is the Fool in King Lear because you can kind of play that as a failing comic and it takes on some other form – it’s got a very maudlin.
But the RSC have never asked me, so I might like to one day… there’s nothing like being on stage. It’s like today I felt really nervous arriving at the theatre, and then I realised I wasn’t getting on stage – then I was quite envious of the actors. They are going to go out and entertain an audience and there’s nothing like it.

What was the impetus for writing The Boy in the Dress? I got a letter from a kid who was a Little Britain fan and he sent me a picture of himself dressed as Emily Howard – the transvestite character I play in the show – and he said we had a dress up day at school and he went as her, and he included a photo. And I thought ‘Ooh that’s brave – no one would have done that at my school, you’d get too much stick’. A while later we were doing a Little Britain Live show and this boy came along and said ‘Do you remember I sent you a letter?’. If you get a lot of fan mail you can’t humanly remember every letter, but I did remember and we chatted. Then I started thinking what if there was a boy who goes to school in a dress for a deeper reason – not just a bit of fun – and I thought how brave he was and thought I wonder if there’s a story in this and started to write it. Anyway this boy – now a man – came along to a book signing in Manchester last year and we chatted again, so he knows it’s partially based on that, it was a spark of inspiration… it’s not actually his life, I’ve imagined it.
I discovered there’s so much more you can do in a book than a comedy sketch. I actually like doing the emotional stuff, and I had never tried that, I’d just written stuff to make people laugh, and there’s not really time in a comedy sketch to have much pathos. It was a very satisfying process, and quite personal. With comedy it was always me and Matt, and while we put a lot of ourselves in it, it’s just a bit different when you collaborate. The book felt personal and truthful. I didn’t have any big expectations; I didn’t think I would still be writing books ten years later. I thought it would be nice to have it on the shelf somewhere and visitors might discover it – ‘Ooh I didn’t know you wrote a book’ – then give them an unsold copy. Then of course Quentin Blake illustrated it, and it grew over time.

Dennis and his dad – played by Jackson Laing and Rufus Hound

In the book do you channel your 11-year-old self?
I think you have to because what I learned from reading Roald Dahl is that you have to see the world through a child’s eyes in order to be a successful children’s author. So you have to think back to being the age of the characters in the book.
When I wrote it the biggest thing was Harry Potter – and still is. I hugely admire the books and Jo Rowling. In Harry Potter all the kids have magic wands and broomsticks, there’s no parents, it’s a wish fulfillment thing. I thought there’s no point in doing that, she’s got that well covered – leave well alone and do something different in the real world, where there’s consequences. That was my experience of being a child – feeling powerless, not in a horrid way, but grown ups making decisions for you all the time and you have to do what you’re told.
It’s always the right thing to go against the grain of the zeitgeist. Like when we did Little Britain the massive thing was The Office – an incredible piece of work, but there’s not point in trying to copy it as that’s been done definitively; so I had a similar mindset when I wrote The Boy in the Dress.

In your recently published new book, The Beast of Buckingham Palace, your 13th, the hero is called Alfred, the same name as your son’s. Has becoming a father had an impact on your writing?
Yeah. My son’s only six so not quite the age to read the books, but we talk about ideas. There are ideas that only kids can come up with: ‘behind that door there are dinosaurs!’. But when I’m with him I’m just dad, I don’t make him read my books! I was helping him out with his homework the other day when had to write a story and he discounted my suggestions – I thought that was quite good, he knows his own mind.

Will you be wearing a dress for the opening of The Boy in the Dress later this month?Robbie Williams said he was going to, which makes me think I shouldn’t. Because he will look great and I will just look stupid. So I wasn’t planning to, I’d worry it might send the wrong message, but if Robbie does it would be cool.

Who is your favourite dress designer? Alexander McQueen – I got to meet him a couple of times and went to a few shows, he was an absolute genius.

Book tickets for The Boy in the Dress at www.rsc.org.uk

  • wicked messenger

    Interesting. After two sell-out years with A Christmas Carol – a real Christmas story, you might say – how are ticket sales going this time?