Even the most popular musicals are turning away from happy-ever-after coupledom. And putting the difficulties of young men centre stage. It is less than three years since the hero of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie found happiness in a frock. Last week, Evan Hansen sang boy blues. Now here is The Boy in the Dress, in which a 12-year-old prize striker (on press night an utterly soaring and focused Toby Mocrei) slips into a sequinned shift and discovers he is immediately less lonely. He gets sneered at – but only briefly. And oh the glory when he comes on, delicate in his shiny orange item, surrounded by silver-clad, light-reflecting Valkyries: Golden Balls amid the glitterballs.
It is stirring that there is a Spartacus element to Mark Ravenhill’s new adaptation of David Walliams’s 2008 children’s book. By the end of the show a horde of chaps have put on dresses: in a panto tribute, even Forbes Masson’s bristling headmaster squeezes into massive multi-patterned froufrou. And just as I was beginning to wonder where the truly inconvenient girls were, up turned the school’s bullies in the shape of a rapping band of threatening females: even their school uniforms were on a roll. In the new protocol, girls are thought interestingly out of kilter if they are naughty, while boys, deemed hardwired for naughtiness, are considered to transgress when they melt and fess up to feelings.
In what might be considered a corrective to Evan Hansen melancholy, Gregory Doran’s production is, after some opening wistfulness, unswervingly buoyant. Guy Chambers’s and Robbie Williams’s music and lyrics snap, crackle and pop: strongest and most infectious in numbers that have more of terrace chant than ballad mooniness. Aletta Collins’s choreography could do with more verve in some football sequences but has much well-drilled bounce.
The opening scene – on which, in front of Robert Jones’s dinky cardboard houses, a crowd of “ordinary” people tell us about their shopping habits – risks being a Lidl bit patronising, but from then on it’s up all the way. Here are: a very good puppet dog, specialising in precision farting; a team of posh boys who prance on stage boasting that their soccer anthems are in Latin; a flying snot rag, which helps win a match; a corner shop proprietor who makes his jelly babies talk to each other. A family show with legs – if not trousers.
More revelations about boys in The Arrival. Concentrated, unadorned and subtle, Bijan Sheibani’s first play twists elegantly like a snake trying to catch its tail. This sibling story is acted with ease and minute precision by Scott Karim and Irfan Shamji. It is also exquisitely staged by the dramatist: Sheibani cajoles an audience into thinking that what he is doing as a director is almost effortless, that he is simply allowing his play to disclose itself.
Samal Blak’s design is a seemingly plain circle – pale, sometimes green – around which men gently bicycle, hectically run, manoeuvre against and towards each other. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting makes this ring an ambiguous space in which actors can hide among the shadows of themselves and each other, but which also flushes up, sometimes becoming a gladiatorial arena, occasionally appearing simply open, encouraging and sunny.
Two brothers – separated, coming together, going away – are sometimes transfixed by each other, hover on the brink of being united, tip over into suspicion and near hostility. The older – for reasons that are not made clear – was given up for adoption as a baby: he went to a comp, is savvy, without quite settling down, and does Ironman. The other, brought up by his birth parents, was expensively educated: he is physically soft, apparently hesitant, but methodically equips himself with job and family.
The consequences of material differences are made clear but not overemphasised; the effects of feeling you belong are delicately traced. As a director, Sheibani has illuminated male relationships, with transfixing productions of Barber Shop Chronicles (in perpetual tour) and The Brothers Size. The Arrival also has faint reminders of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, examining what might make lives that overlap completely individual. It lands with assurance: here is a play with a long life.
True, Richard III is a murderer with a chip on his shoulder so big that it looks like a hump. Nevertheless, the play collides with 21st-century Britain. Here is a country torn between bitterly opposed factions. The man in charge is a compulsive seducer, a reeler in of women and the public, with a great capacity for telling, um, stories.
Yet though Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s production is decisively modern-dress, cross-gender cast, and given Tarantino touches, it is more strenuous than immediate. The action is ferocious but often flaccid.
Grace Smart’s design – chipboard, scrawled with graffiti – is set up for gang warfare. As the king, Sophie Russell (shorts and no hump) jabs the air like a rapper and speaks with explosive emphases – as if vehemence might wrestle the lines into significance. She is lithe and versatile but does not so much dance through the part as dance on it. After each murder she glides around in different guises (once in Elvis-style silver jacket and pompadour hair) crooning For the Good Times.
It is not easy to know which disruptions are meant to carry weight. When a queen has an American accent is this a Meghan allusion? A suggestion of a new line in these most lineage-oriented plays? Steffan Donnelly ably plays magnificent, cursing Margaret (beard and tiara), but missing from the production is the notion of women with their own imperial legacy: of grief. All had a son, father or husband murdered by a chap hacking his way to power. Ah, the trouble those men cause before they get into dresses.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Boy in the Dress ★★★★
The Arrival ★★★★
Richard III ★★
The Arrival is at the Bush, London, until 18 January 2020
Richard III is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 26 January