This Christmas, the RSC are creating a brand new musical based on David Walliams’ classic novel The Boy In The Dress.
Gregory Doran, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director was introduced to David Walliams’ children’s novel The Boy In The Dress by Mark Ravenhill. Suggesting the idea of a musical, Gregory read the book and felt a very Shakespearean connection to it.
“I really liked the book and of course Shakespeare is famous for his characters dressing up as the opposite sex,” he said. “At its heart it has great storytelling, really brilliant narrative and something very important to say about being different.”
After falling in love with the book, they got songwriter Guy Chambers on board to work on the music He then told Robbie Williams about his latest project who instantly wanted to get involved. Currently in rehearsals, it has been a long process, but the musical finally opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this Christmas.
It’s a hugely loved book and was turned into a BBC film, but Gregory feels a musical is what really can bring the story to life. “In films, sometimes everything can be too literal,” he said. “Whereas on stage you can bring the cartoon element out a bit more and really heighten the scale of it. Robert Jones has done a fantastic job at designing the show and capturing a world that isn’t real but feels recognisable.
Robert said: “It is that thing of remembering fondly something you did as a child, it is slightly fuzzy around the edges. I always go back to reading books, when I read books I was always obsessed with the illustrations. They are so much part of the storytelling and it’s so hard to then envisage a character, as often these characters are drawn in books and I have memories of things I read as a child and I remember what they look like. For us it is bringing that world to life and that is what we have started doing in this.”
Gregory emphasised the theatricality of the show. “You can’t be naturalists and you don’t want to be naturalistic because it should be an experience. Film loves the real and is not very good at being metaphorical. The stage in Stratford has this great warmth as it sort of wraps its arms around you as a stage and it has this amazing vibe which I think is going to be fantastic for this show.”
Mark Ravenhill said what stood out to him in @davidwalliams’ book The Boy In The Dress was when young Dennis first tries on a dress & says it felt like they were in their own little musical.— Amy Stutz (@AmyStutz) September 24, 2019
Today that was brought to life in @TheRSC’s rehearsals for the show #RSCBoyInDress 👗⚽️ pic.twitter.com/gQoaY0CGHV
The RSC get big family audiences up in Stratford-Upon-Avon at Christmas time as their programming strays from their traditional Shakespeare. “It’s great because we welcome new audiences and kids come to see the show who will then grow up and hopefully bring their own kids back to the RSC one day,” Gregory said.
“When it comes to new audiences visiting the theatre, sometimes it’s about breaking down the barrier of just walking through the door and feeling that it’s your right to be there. It is just about doing it for the first time and once you’ve done that, it can become familiar and a habit which we hope it will.”
Choreographer Aletta Collins came on board around a year ago, known for her work on Made in Dagenham and Bend It Like Beckham the Musical, she has relished the challenge of this new show. “One of the major things I had to think about was how we were going to do the football on stage. I won’t tell you how, but it has been a very interesting journey,” Aletta explained.
“You can’t watch whole game of football in a show, so it has to be the choreographic highlights of the match. Some of the things that happen in the football matches in the show are really good fun and crazy. One time a goal is scored because Dennis sneezes and all the snot goes on the goalie’s face. These were some of the challenges we were faced with.”
There is always a challenge when it comes to tackling a new musical because obviously it has never been done before, so there is no set right or wrong, you just have to trust your instincts. “ When I did West Side Story, which is almost one of the most perfect musicals that has been around for so long, you go into a room with a musical like that never questioning whether the music works. You only question your interpretation of it,” Aletta said. With a new musical everything is fluid, everything is moving.
“You sometimes walk into a room and catch yourself thinking ‘wow this is really hard’ but it is because you’re the first person to ever have tried to do it. You’re meeting challenges no one else has ever dealt with because it is a brand new moment.”
Not only is it a charming story, but it has themes that hold such weight in modern society. “It is great to be able to articulate these important messages in a really popular form,” Gregory said.
“Dennis’ story is about being different, the story works being that metaphor that everyone can relate to because it is about being different. It can make you feel very isolated and you can feel a prejudice building up against that. You can see that and you can see your story on stage it is really powerful. So I think it is Shakespearean in that it touches very human themes and issues in a very different way.”
The Boy In The Dress is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon from the 8th of November to the 20th of March, tickets and information can be found on their website.