Cross-dressing was rife on the Shakespearean stage. Women were not allowed to perform in plays, so men and boys had to do a kind of “restrained RuPaul” to bring the Bard’s marvellous heroines to life. And these female characters (Rosalind, Portia, Imogen et al), when plot and occasion demanded, would slip into the drag of male disguise: men dressed as women dressed as men.
They did not come across the same difficulties as Dennis, the 12-year-old modern-day hero of David Walliams’s best selling children’s book, a much-loved classic now given a theatrical makeover by the Royal Shakespeare Company for its main-stage Christmas attraction.
Dennis has a two-fold function in the economy of the story. He’s the boy pining for the mother who walked out on her family – his grief symbolised by his longing to wear the yellow dress she wore when the family was whole and happy. And he is the ace football player whose goal-scoring prowess is vital to his school’s chances of lifting the trophy at the league final. Footy is manifestly not as rampant as frock-wearing in the Shakespearean universe. Fans of King Lear will remember the name of the glorious game being taken in vain when loyal, plain-speaking Kent lets loose a volley of jeers at Oswald, Goneril’s insultingly uppity servant. These vituperative gems include “base football player” – ie, the lowest of the low.
The two worlds collide – and mischievously collude – with a delirious comic dynamism in this wonderfully warm-hearted and well-cast show, directed with verve by Gregory Doran. Of the four young stars-in-the-making who get to play Dennis on a rota, it is Toby Mocrei at the press performance. He’s enchanting – whether laying bare his soul (which knows that maternal loss has left him feeling at variance with the tough-guy tropes of conventional masculinity) or glinting with just the right modest degree of glee as he swishes into the groove of a spangly, tangerine-coloured outfit. It was the shift into the second of these phases that caused the present writer to wrestle with a mysterious lump in his throat.
The show conforms to the game-of-two-halves pattern. The first of the footy matches (the ball is at the end of a darting, flexible pole, and is moved around by a puppeteer) did not give me a real inkling of the elation that would be generated by the adroit anarchy of the mad, purposeful final. The fabulous choreography is by Aletta Collins and Strictly can go and eat its heart out, frankly, as the show builds to a swoon-worthy succession of peaks.
Take, for example, the Spartacus-influenced sequence where his fellow team-members arrive for the final, one by one, in a sort of defiant contagion of drag. The scene is pure joy. There is something genuinely giddy and – though rampaging – almost shy about the sight of these butch lads discovering, and rejoicing in, a whole new latitude for the legs.
The ear-wormy songs have music and lyrics by a team comprising Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath, starting off with an anthem called “Ordinary”. This song may put you in mind of the blocky, scrunched-up parping of Madness in “Our House” mode. Flat-capped and Alice-banded citizens hymn the benefits of being unremarkable.
Their unshowy, double-fronted dwellings (which reference the great Quentin Blake’s drawings in the book) are manoeuvred as miniaturised 3D models. These can be hinged open at the roof to establish the interior views (the witty set design is by Robert Jones). When Dennis is expelled from school, the good burghers point accusing fingers, and it is as if the gun turrets of a squadron of tanks are being trained on him.
The final anthem is called, with fitting book-end symmetry, “Extraordinary”. It alerts you to the fact that, just as “extraordinary” literally incorporates the word “ordinary”, the breaking down of prejudice needs to happen on a two-way street.
I love the way that Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly zhuzhed-up stage adaptation acknowledges that the marvellous is created by an act of pupation from the prosaic. The performances are likewise lovely in the way they synthesise the heightened and the humdrum.
Rufus Hound is attractively funny and moving as the working-class, Billy Elliot-style father whose diet has become a disaster-area of self-neglect. Caught scoffing chips and ice cream at the same time, he shrugs and says that “the chips are still frozen so it’s fine”.
Tabitha Knowles brings bags of chutzpah and sly humour to the role of Lisa James, the head turner who masterminds Dennis’s return to school in the alter ego of a wig-wearing French exchange student called Denise. Forbes Masson is explosively funny as the ginger-’tached, splenetically prejudiced headmaster whose come-out number had me doubled-up to the point of being spread-eagled.
The lovely musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (whose eponymous lead is four years older than Dennis and has designs on being a drag artist) embarks on an extensive UK tour in February, helmed by the wonderful Matt Ryan. So fans of shows that challenge gender binaries are spoilt for choice. As is sometimes the case with selecting a frock for a night on the town, you might not know how to plump and end up essentially picking – and wearing – both.