Royal Shakespeare theater, Stratford-upon-Avon
A resplendent cast sing the praises of self-expression in Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation of the feelgood football novel
(T)he boy who defies tribal expectations is becoming a recurrent theme in the British musical. First cameBilly Elliot, thenEverybody’s Talking About Jamie, and now the RSC gives us a show based onDavid Walliams’2008 bestseller, adapted by Mark Ravenhill, with music and lyrics by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath. The result is a cheerful, tuneful celebration of the desire to be different that could easily replicate the popularity of its predecessors.
Walliams-watchers will hardly need to be reminded of the story. It focuses on the 12 – year-old Dennis, who is star striker in the school football team but whose life changes when he covertly buys a copy of Vogue. His purchase is prompted by the cover shot of a woman who reminds him of his mum, who has left home. Dennis’s fascination with fashion starts a friendship with a much-fancied schoolmate, Lisa James, who persuades him to try on an orange sequinned dress she has designed. He looks at himself in the mirror with wonder. He never looks back.
This show differs from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which is about a teenage drag queen, in two important ways. Dennis has to overcome much more strenuous opposition than Jamie, from his headmaster, his family and his fellow footballers. Where Jamie disports himself at a drag-club, Dennis’s transvestism feels more like a temporary measure. Significantly, Ravenhill omits the scene in the book where Dennis enthusiastically tries on everything in Lily’s wardrobe from blouses to bangles. This show feels less like a celebration of sexual freedom than an assertion of its hero’s right to independence.
Even if the musical relies on our own willing acceptance of Dennis’s decision, it has a buoyant Britpop-style score with nicely varied numbers. The most rousing is Disco Symphony, where the whole ensemble turn into black and silver androgynes.
The score also boasts the wistful, in a song about A House Without a Mum; the wishful, in a nostalgic number about a beach holiday; and the quietly wicked, in the headmaster’s I Hate Kids. The lyrics rarely take you by surprise but the tunes have an immediate appeal.
Gregory Doran’s swift, sharp production shrewdly offsets Robert Jones’s monochrome designs with brightly colorful costumes and makes extensive use of Aletta Collins’s choreography – even the two football matches feel like a ballet, with the ball propelled by a rod. (The same kind of rod is used by Ben Thompson to manipulate a farting puppet dog.)
But the show rests on the shoulders of its young lead and Toby Mocrei – one of four child actors playing Dennis – is astonishing. He sings and dances with total assurance yet captures Dennis’s essential loneliness, which finds temporary relief when he dons a dress. Tabitha Knowles – one of three Lisas – radiates a natural gaiety that counterbalances Dennis’s introversion and there is good work from the surrounding adults including Forbes Masson as the deeply suspect headmaster, (Rufus Hound) as Dennis’s burly dad and Charlotte Wakefield as a French teacher. It’s not a musical that radically advances the form but it’s a warm-hearted show that, in championing self-expression, instantly enlists our sympathy.
AtRoyal Shakespeare theater, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 8 March