|By JOHN NATHAN
If you were a member of the marketing team for the new musical created by the RSC – producers of the global hit Matilda – there is plenty that is positive to focus on.
The score is by one of pop’s biggest stars, Robbie Williams, and his long-time writing collaborator Guy Chambers (hits include Angels). The novel on which Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation is based is by British TV comedy star David Walliams. You might also make something of the fact that it is directed by Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, no less.
But after sitting through nearly two and a half hours of the show, which is about a boy who loves dresses while plying the moral that it is okay to be different, you might feel the need to be a little more creative in the way you promote it.
For instance, rare is the production that generates flashbacks to much-loved other shows that have come before. If you haven’t seen them there is little need to after this production, and if you have, sit back and enjoy them again, the spin might go.
Our hero is twelve-year-old Dennis (Toby Mocrei on press night), the top scorer in his school’s soccer team. He knows that he is different from other kids but can’t quite put his finger on why. But who wants to be different anyway, asks the show’s first song, "Ordinary," in which the cast of 26 declares the virtue of not standing out.
For Dennis, the penny drops about his sense of otherness when he visits his local corner shop run by the friendly Raj (Irvine Iqbal), one of two thinly drawn Asian comedy characters. (The other is the mother of Dennis’ school friend, a one-woman cheerleading team whose dog guarantees children's laughter by breaking wind a lot.)
In the shop, Dennis spots a copy of Vogue. This spark ignites a love for female fashion that is shared with Lisa (Tabitha Knowles for this performance, who sings beautifully), held by all the children to be the school’s most beautiful girl. Dennis tries on one of her dresses and goes to school in it while pretending to be a female French exchange student. What happens next is exactly what you might expect.
But if this show holds few surprises, it is because almost every idea has been seen before, not least the very notion of a boy wanting to break free from working-class masculinity. Here there is a father who hates that idea (like Billy Elliot), a hero who yearns to ditch his school uniform for something that is gorgeous and feminine (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) and a school head who hates children (just like Matilda) so much he gets his own song about. Called "I Hate Kids," it is sung with spittle by Forbes Masson and in form has much in common with "I Hate Men" from Kiss Me Kate, though little of its wit.
Taken out of this context, this show does what it does well enough. The score efficiently pushes the plot along, though only once does it infect the production with the irresistible energy of one of Williams’ chart hits. It happens with the song "A Girl Who’s Gonna Be," during which Dennis, still disguised as Denise, is initiated into the school’s girl gang – a driving, harmonising injection of much needed energy. The intended showstopper by contrast – a fantasy homage to fashion performed as a diamanté-studded disco number – fails to dazzle, despite an abundance of sequins.
But what really falls flat here is the creators' apparent delusion that they are pushing the boundaries of convention while preaching the important lesson that being different is a good thing. But in fact the boundaries were pushed and the lessons were taught some time ago, and much more entertainingly.