INTERVIEW: David Walliams Discusses The Boy in the Dress at The RSC
One of the most hotly anticipated shows this winter must be The Boy in the Dress, a new musical for all the family based on David Walliams’ best-selling debut novel. Premiering at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 8 November, the show also boasts a score by the chart-topping song-writing team of Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers.
During rehearsals, David Walliams spoke to Terri Paddock about his inspiration for the book, and how the book came to be adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Boy in the Dress was your first children’s novel. Why did you want to write children’s books?
I just had an idea for a story that involved a child. I thought, as a child is the central figure, maybe this would be a good story for children to read and it would be a good story about what it is to be different, which is something you feel a lot as a child.
Was there a particular message you were trying to convey with The Boy in the Dress?
It’s quite an adult theme – a boy dressing as a girl – but it’s dealt with in a simple way. I didn’t want to put any labels on Dennis, the boy in the dress. He doesn’t really understand everything that’s going on in the world or what anything means. He’s just Dennis. He wants to be different and to express himself and, in doing so, the world around him changes for the better.
How did your collaboration with the RSC begin?
I certainly never thought, oh, one day The Boy in the Dress will be a musical with the RSC. About four years ago, Mark Ravenhill asked to adapt it. At that point, he didn’t say that it should be a musical. I thought it was going to be a play version. So I met Mark a few times. I liked him a lot, I liked his work a lot. I thought, well, he’s a proper playwright, it’s brilliant that he wants to do it.
I’d seen all of Mark’s plays – Shopping and F****** (like everyone else), Mother Clap’s Molly’s House, Some Explicit Polaroids, The Cane. You don’t think of his work as being child-friendly, especially not a play called Shopping and F****** But I knew that he’d know how to make the story theatrical, and there are issues in the book where I thought, where he’s coming from with his previous work, he’ll know how to deal with that in a sensitive way.
Later I met Mark with Greg Doran (the show’s director) and they said, Oh, we’d like to do it as a musical and ask Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers to write the music. I know Robbie and Guy a bit and I thought, well, you can ask them, I’m not going to ask. When they said, Robbie and Guy are on board, then I thought, yeah, well, I’ll believe it when I hear the songs. Then, when I came to a workshop and I heard 18 incredible songs, I was like, oh, this is real now.
It’s quite a long process putting a musical together so I didn’t want to start crowing about it before it became a reality. But now that the tickets are on sale, it really is going to happen.
What do Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams in particular bring to The Boy in the Dress?
They’re brilliant. What I was really impressed with when I first heard their songs for The Boy in the Dress was how immediate they were. There’s a directness and simplicity to them.Sometimes you can see a musical and you’re listening and you can think, what were they just saying? Because Guy and Robbie are used to writing pop songs, they’re very immediate and very gettable.
Also, while their songs are obviously based on things in The Boy in the Dress, they’re not slavish to it. They’ve found their own new language, but also they’ve somehow enlarged it. They’ve made the whole thing grow and feel much bolder than it was before. Songs have that power, don’t they?
They’re all really catchy too and each song is unique to the character, that character’s voice and the emotion they’re expressing.
What would you like audiences to take away from the musical?
Although there are some serious themes in The Boy in the Dress, it’s a funny show. I hope people will have a really good time, have a laugh and sing along, but also take away something that’s a little bit surprising and a little bit challenging. Guy Chambers says it’s feelgood – it’s an overused word, I know, but it is, it’s a really feelgood piece. You should come out feeling more positive about the world.