After several years’ development, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s highly anticipated new musical – an adaptation of best-selling children’s author David Walliams‘ 2008 debut novel The Boy in the Dress with a script by Mark Ravenhill and music and lyrics by chart-topping songwriters Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers – is gearing up for its world premiere.
Ahead of an expected London transfer, The Boy in the Dress has a limited run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it starts performances one week from today (1 November 2019) and continues until 8 March 2020.
During rehearsals, I spoke to David Walliams about his inspiration for the original story, his burgeoning career as a children’s writer, the differences between writing for books and writing for television, the brilliance of Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl, and how he feels having his work adapted by the RSC. Read the full interview, including his views on his aspiration to appear in Matilda, on TerriPaddock.com.
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.
How was writing books different from your television writing?
There’s so much you can do in a book that you can’t do in a comedy sketch – such as telling a story that’s evolving over a period of time and, the biggest thing, giving an emotional life to the characters. I’d never tried to do anything emotional before, I’d only ever tried to make people laugh. Comedy sketches are only two to three minutes long, so there’s not time for that and it wouldn’t be appropriate. In a book, there’s more time and opportunity. I discovered I really liked writing those bits and that maybe I’m good at it. It felt true to me.
I was very affected seeing that first book of mine in print, so beautifully put together with Quentin Blake’s illustration on the cover. Television, as much as I love making it, is quite ephemeral. I know there are DVDs and catch-up, but most of the time, you’re just on television and then the next day, someone’s watching something else. A book has a lot more life, more permanence to it. And they’re beautiful objects in themselves.
Because of all that, I really enjoyed the process and it made me want to write more.
And that led to a whole new career as a children’s author.
Yes, I’m doing one novel a year, a novella a year, a book of short stories a year, and a picture book a year. Basically, I’m always writing them. It never ends. As soon as I finish one, I know I’ve got to start the next one.
Your first two children’s books – The Boy in the Dress & Mr Stink – were illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose designs are also referenced in the stage production. What do his illustrations add to your story?
Quentin set a tone for The Boy in the Dress and brought the emotions to the fore. There’s something very tender and sensitive about his illustrations. The other thing about Quentin is, because a lot of us have grown up with his illustrations, it’s like instant nostalgia when we see his work as a grownup. It makes you think of your own childhood.
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.
“The songs are brilliant and it’s something new, it’s something different.”
Hear from @davidwalliams and the rest of our brilliant creative team on The Boy in the Dress.
— The RSC (@TheRSC) November 1, 2019
Later I met Mark with Greg Doran 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.
Your children’s writing is often compared with Roald Dahl’s. How significant has Dahl been to you?
Though I never met him, Roald Dahl got me into reading. I don’t think you become a writer unless you like to read books. I liked reading his books when I was a kid. It’s flattering to be compared to someone who was such a big part of your childhood and whose work you admire so much. But Dahl’s work is unique. It’s mainly because we shared an illustrator in Quentin Blake that people compare.
Did you have any experiences with the RSC growing up?
School took us to see Macbeth at the RSC in 1985/86. It’s burned on my memory because it’s the first Shakespeare I went to, and I saw Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack and David Troughton. I’ve met all of them since and told them what an effect it had on me.
If you’re an actor or director, you’ve got to remember that any show could be the first one someone ever sees and you have a responsibility. You don’t want someone to come who’s never been to the theatre and they hate it so much they think, oh, never again.
How do you feel now making your ‘RSC debut’?
The RSC has an incredible legacy, an incredible reputation, an incredible way of working. There’s a standard that they never fall below. I have seen lots of things over the years, and I’ve always wanted to work with them. So I’m delighted. It’s like a stamp of approval. 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.