The Boy in the Dress, RSC, Stratford, to March 8.
School bullies, corner shops, rainy British seaside holidays, stiff upper-lipped fathers - there’s no English stereotype left untapped in this Christmas bonanza.
Following the success of its long-running stage show Matilda the Musical, the RSC returns to the backdrop of a provincial village and classroom for its new adaptation of the hit David Walliams novel.
The story centres on gifted young footballer Dennis who is coming to terms with his predilections for sequins and skirts while facing the seemingly small-minded attitudes of friends and family.
All the ingredients appear to be in place to repeat the success of Matilda. Lonely child struggling to fit in – check. Unsympathetic family – check. Sadistic, overbearing headteacher – check.
The main issue is the story itself – thinner than the supermodels Dennis covets, it founders in parts, stretching the emotional connection between the audience and Dennis himself.
For example: even the most practised cross-dresser would surely baulk at the prospect of trying to fool a room full of schoolchildren who have known him for years, into thinking he was a French schoolgirl. Yet the story has us believe that Dennis succeeds, only falling foul when an ill-judged header causes his wig to dislodge.
On the plus side, the sterling performances put in by all the cast more than match the exuberance of Matilda. Forbes Masson delights as mincing pupil-loathing headmaster Mr Hawtrey, while Natasha Lewis brings a Bollywood sparkle to the role of the mum of Dennis’ best friend Darvesh.
And crystal-toned Toby Mocrei tugs on the heartstrings as Dennis, longing for a cuddle from his mum as his life crumbles around him. The song and dance numbers are equally impressive – the Disco Symphony is glitterball-tastic, with more glam and glitz than a Strictly finale.
And the underlying message of valuing difference, although wrapped up in Walliams’ trademark end-of-the-pier humour, packs an potent ‘live and let live’ punch.
Finally, as ever at the RSC, the silent cast member is the set itself. Ingeniously designed, the ranks of humdrum terraced houses, set against the menacing silhouette of moorland, emphasises the isolation Dennis feels as he tries to break free. The slate roofs unfold to reveal a set worthy of any 60s' kitchen sink drama, until it becomes transformed into a Studio 54-esque nightclub as Dennis unfurls his sequin-strewn wings and finds the confidence to express himself.
Overall maybe it’s not quite the monster smash of Matilda. But for a genuinely heart-warming, feel-good festive show to get your toes tapping, put on your dancing shoes and shimmy over to Stratford.
For tickets call the RSC box office on 01789 331111.
Picture by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC