REVIEW: The Boy in the Dress – spangly and sensational *****

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The Boy in the Dress cast. Photos: Manuel Harlan

The Boy in the Dress, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 8th March 2020

Excitement was at fever pitch on Thursday as Stratfordians speculated which A-listers would be descending on the town for the swanky ‘green carpet’ premiere of The Boy in the Dress.

Jackson Laing as Dennis

Luckily the Herald got to go and hobnob with the stars and see the dazzling spectacle that is the RSC’s new musical based on David Walliams’ much-loved children’s book, and we can exclusively reveal that Kylie Minogue, Beyonce, Blur, Oasis, Take That, the Spice Girls and Elton John were all there, whooping it up, spilling prosecco on their sparkly disco duds as they boogied along to the utterly irresistible Boy in the Dress.

What am I blathering on about? OK, those esteemed slebs might not have actually been there in bodily form but they were absolutely present in spirit.

If you’ve ever hollered along to a Britpop anthem, gone bonkers on the dancefloor, felt like an outsider, longed for love, scored a winning goal, been nostalgic for times gone by, or cried at Christmas, then The Boy in the Dress is for you. Everyone, everywhere in other words.

Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers have created a stellar soundtrack that joyously marries disco soul to Britpop pomp through a series of solid gold tunes. Opener Ordinary – which channels Blur’s Parklife, Madness’s Our House, and chucklingly name checks two Brit icons: Monster Munch and Mary Berry, sets the bar high from the get-go. We all just want to be the same, opine the chorus, as they wheel around models of grey uniform houses in unison and dunk digestives in their tea – somewhat menacingly.

Irvine Iqbal as Raj

In the midst of this frighteningly ordinary world the Sims family suffers a fatal bout of marital strife, which sees the mum quit the family home, leaving the emotionally inept dad (perfectly blokey Rufus Hound) to raise two sons. The youngest, talented footballer 12-year-old Dennis, feels his ma’s loss particularly keenly and cherishes a photo of her in a yellow dress…. Cue a series of events that lead him to find comfort in wearing a dress himself.

The scenario is a familiar-ish one – hello Billy Elliot – in which difference is celebrated in a boy’s/man’s world where not confirming to the norm is forbidden – especially at school and on the sports field. Under the vivacious direction of Gregory Doran, with the book written by Mark Ravenhill, this story however feels luminous and new. Add Aletta Collins’ genius choreography (so many highs – but the posh footballers, the flying snot and gorgeously glitzy disco centrepiece are special delights) and Robert Jones’ vivid storybook set into the mix, and the result is a glossy nonstop showstopper of a production.

Into this brimful of excellence come the cast – descriptions of which will severely deplete the world’s reserves of superlatives. The very tippest-toppest is Dennis, tonight played by Jackson Laing (there are four child actors taking on the role) with heart and soul, he is utterly believable, and hearing him sing weepy If I Don’t Cry will break your heart. The kids are all ridiculously talented and amazing – shout-outs to Arjun Singh Khakh playing Dennis’ bestie Dharvesh; Zachary Loonie and as big brother John; and Asha Banks who is spellbinding as older girl Lisa James who designs the sensationally spangly dress that Dennis wears.

Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtry

The grown-ups don’t let the side town either; with Irvine Iqbal, hilarious as Raj the shopkeeper; Natasha Lewis, glorious as the loud and proud mother of Dharvesh; and Forbes Masson, the fabulously villainous, child-hating headmaster Mr Hawtry – all putting in especially winning performances. (In fact, please just presume that I have gone through the programme and put a gold star by the names of all the cast and creatives, including the farting dog puppet Oddbod… There’s not a duffer in sight, no need for any ‘see me’s.)

Back to the songs, there’s 17 corkers here that tick all the prerequisites for an excellent musical: catchy, earwormy, ranging from ballads to bangers, which together tell a story and celebrate life itself. Disco Symphony will be your new favourite giddygoat party barnstormer; while bad girl number A Girl Who’s Gonna Be allows you to discover your inner gangster; I Hate Kids voices a sentiment all adults will relate to (come on, you know it’s true)… Enough hyperbole, surely you’ve heard enough to buy a ticket?

Apparently master musical-maker Andrew Lloyd-Webber was also (really) in the audience. Perhaps he was there to hand the baton over to the new upstarts, Chambers and Williams, the incoming sheriffs of musical theatre.