Writer David Walliams takes us through his personal journey with the RSC as his novel, The Boy in the Dress, comes to the stage in a new musical production.
David was already established as a successful actor and comedian. And then he had an idea for a book...
Writing The Boy in the Dress
Published in 2008, The Boy in the Dress was David's first book, and he has been writing for children ever since: "Even as an adult, I enjoyed reading children’s books. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure. I liked re-reading books I’d enjoyed as a child and ones I’d missed as a child. There are stories that you know well – like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan – where you realise, I never actually read the book. I was really enjoying reading those kind of classics when I had the idea for The Boy in the Dress and thought, I need to write this story down otherwise it’s just going to be spinning round in my head forever.
"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. So I didn’t say he’s transvestite or transgender. 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."
From page to stage
Playwright Mark Ravenhill asked about adapting the book for the stage four years ago: "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 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."
Having RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran taking the reins on the show was what David calls "a stamp of approval."
"It's a bit like when Quentin Blake decided to illustrate my first book. That’s a stamp of approval. The RSC want to do a book of mine? Ooh-err, it must be good then."
Making a musical
Seeing the musical starting to take shape has been very different to writing the book.
He explains: "When you write a book, it’s a very intimate thing – it’s just you and the page or computer screen. You’re on your own. Even when you publish, there’s an illustrator, a designer or editor, but it’s still a very small number of people.
"The experience of putting on a musical with the RSC has been something else entirely… In the first rehearsal, there were over 100 people – all the actors and directors and designers and choreographers – and it was pretty overwhelming. I was humbled and felt quite nervous seeing all these people working to bring what was my vision to the stage. It was one of those moments where you imagine you might feel pride, and I wished the ground would swallow me up.
"But it has been amazing to see all these people working together and how every single one of them has to do their job brilliantly for the piece to really take off. I have been so impressed. And Greg Doran is a very collaborative director. I remember sitting around at the first run-through with lots of people all doing different jobs, and he asked everybody what they thought of the whole thing, not just their bit. Everyone was included and got equal status in making this thing.
"With a musical, there are all these other things involved that I don’t have any expertise in, like songwriting and choreography. I’ve always thought you should just work with great people and then let them do their best work. They’re the experts – you’ve got to let them do their thing and not be prescriptive.
"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 - it really is going to happen!"
The Boy in the Dress runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 8 November 2019 - 8 March 2020.