NOTE: Preview review
Photos: Manuel Harlan
It works every time, doesn’t it? A deftly crafted charmer of a show, The Boy Friend draws you into its own reality and hugs you. And as Matthew White’s slick production, supported by Bill Deamer’s impeccable choreography testifies, it remains as fresh as ever. From the moment Tiffany Grave’s chic maid, Hortense, cues the band by running her feather duster down the keys of a white grand piano, kick-starting the overture and opening dance-drama, so the magic begins too – and continues for the ensuing two and a half hours.
Entering the auditorium, the audience is greeted by Paul Farnsworth’s pretty all-purpose set. The theatre has been transformed into a vast winter garden with delicate white wrought ironmongery and fretwork, and an extended cyclorama of sea and sky. Balustrades, palm trees and Chinese lanterns – even seagulls for the esplanade scene – are added along with furniture, as needed. His ‘twenties costumes are also a joy; no expense has been spared, especially in the carnival scene. And it’s nice to see Tony in a smart blazer and flannels rather than the bellboy-type outfit he’s traditionally obliged to wear in his role as a messenger from Gaston the costumier.
With its simplicity and lacking the dated baggage inherent in the musical comedies of a century ago (often written to accommodate the specialised talents of their stars) The Boy Friend must surely be better constructed than any genuine 1920s confection. Billed as ‘a valentine from one post-war generation to another’, it provided my own parents’ generation with nostalgia for a youth spent before the Depression followed by the miseries of WWII and the years of dreariness after that. Things only cheered up with the start of the new Elizabethan Age – the year before the show was written. And, by golly chaps, don’t we need a little cheering up again now?
First written as a short fill-in at the Players Theatre at Charing Cross in the spring of 1953 – later expanded into three acts en route for the West End – the show was designed to pay homage to the mindless entertainments of yesteryear: a gentle pastiche of the decade of cloche hats, pencil pleats and the Charleston. As a schoolboy, I was lucky enough to catch the original production on tour, so can imagine Wilson’s horror when the show went into rehearsals on Broadway – with a young Julie Andrews in the lead – and the producers demanded a broader tone. Even so, it was still a hit in New York and has survived various incarnations, including a mish-mashed 1971 Ken Russell show-within-a-film which even referenced the ‘thirties director-choreographer Busby Berkeley. At least that made a performer of Twiggy.
Wisely here White and Deamer, whilst maintaining the necessary stylisation and stylishness the show requires, have gone for total sincerity. Wilson would have thoroughly approved. At the end of Act Two when the tearful ingénue admits she’s had something stolen and her friend ‘Madcap’ Maisie asks: ‘Not your gold bangle, Polly?’ only a heart of granite could be unmoved by her reply: ‘No… something much more precious.’
The choice of Amara Okereke – a delightful Laurey in Oklahoma! at Chichester this summer – lends a poignant touch of otherness to the young heiress Polly, the demurest and most perfect of the young ladies at the Villa Caprice (the finishing school in Nice where the story is set) who needs to stand slightly apart from her boisterous flapper chums. She’s well supported by the exquisite Janie Dee, as Madame Dubonnet the Head Mistress, playing for the truth of the character in one stunning costume after another, whilst simultaneously providing a masterclass in comic timing and, when required, flirtatiousness.
There’s a marvellous sight gag early on when Dee carelessly thrusts a bunch of roses into a vase on a white grand piano and they miraculously arrange themselves – an indication of the imaginative detail that’s gone into the production. It was a brainwave, too, to give Mme D a pair of spectacles, especially when she first meets her old flame, Polly’s father, Percival, who only recognises and falls in love with her all over again once she removes them. It also gives her a far-seeing vision plot-wise. As Percy, Robert Portal makes a suave silver fox of the millionaire and his duets with Dee are a delight.
But if Percy is normally permitted to be youngish and debonair, in many productions Lord and Lady Brockhurst, the parents of the young male lead, Tony (a fleet-footed Dylan Mason) appear more like his frumpy grandparents. This is partly avoided in this version with the casting of the classy Issy Van Randwyck as a fashionably dressed, attractive Lady Brockhurst, although, for all his comedic skills, Adrian Edmundson can’t conceal the fact that Lord Brockhurst is a tiresome sex pest.
The directors, overly conscious of Twenty-First Century sensibilities, have therefore re-contextualised the scene involving the usually show-stopping eleven o’clock number It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love. It’s not a spoiler alert to say this is now played as a trio, giving Van Randwyck more of a raison d’etre and avoiding the unpleasant topicality of a DOM’s flirtation with a girl of ‘seventeen or thereabouts’. Yet at the late preview I saw more confidence and attack was still required at this crucial point. In such capable hands, the sequence may work better once it’s fully broken in.
As the secondary love interest, Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson (Maisie) and her partner Jack Butterworth (Bobby Van Husen) bring energy and a good period sense to their roles, whilst Bethany Huckle and Matthew Ives as speciality dancers Lolita & Pepe, find hilarity in their comic tango.
Bill Deamer excels in dance of this period and constantly fills the stage with breath-taking vitality. There’s never a moment when something is not happening somewhere, and his choice and variety of steps never allows any number to outstay its welcome. The tap routine to Safety in Numbers is particularly effective. The company is also well-served by a warm, atmospheric lighting design from Paul Anderson. The all-important musical input is provided by Simon Beck, with help from orchestrator David Cullen. Wilson’s effervescent but familiar score is rejuvenated and vivaciously played by Beck and his eight instrumentalists.
To summarise: a ripping evening! ‘I don’t claim that I am psychic’, but The Menier could well have another hit on its hands. If so, might this or another theatre not consider reviving some of Wilson’s other sadly neglected, shows: maybe Divorce Me, Darling (the tuneful sequel to The Boy Friend) for starters?