Matthew White and Bill Deamer successfully revive Sandy Wilson’s 1950s hit musical, The Boy Friend, about a group of young women at a finishing school in the French Riviera.
As I sat there in my favourite little theatre – the Menier Chocolate Factory, near London Bridge – I found myself looking around at the audience and wondering: are others here genuinely finding this amusing? In what way is this funny?
The scene that prompted this thought was towards the end of the otherwise rather delightful performance of The Boy Friend. The Boy Friend is a musical pastiche of the 1920s, created in the 1950s by Sandy Wilson, and was hugely popular in its time, transferring from the West End to Broadway and making a star out of Julie Andrews. It features a group of girls at a finishing school in the French Riviera and their boyfriends, who keep popping up for an impromptu song and dance number at every opportunity. There’s no point looking for anything deep here. The success of such a musical must depend on the sheer quality of the music and the dancing, the cast and the setting, and whether all these various parts can come together to transport us to leave our scepticism behind and embrace the carefree exuberance of the French Riviera for an evening.
Director Matthew White and choreographer Bill Deamer’s production achieves this for the most part with ease. The azure blue and white of the set is startlingly bright, the costumes exceptional and the cast buoyant. The main thrust of the story, as far as it exists, concerns millionaire’s daughter Polly Browne (the talented Amara Okereke), who pretends she is a secretary when she meets and falls for delivery boy Tony (Dylan Mason) – only for Tony to ultimately be revealed as the aristocratic son of Lord Brockhurst, making the parents on both sides extremely happy with the match. This is not done subtly – Polly herself sighs dramatically at her predicament in being a millionaire’s daughter – but nor is it meant to be. A sub-plot concerns Polly’s millionaire father Percival (Robert Portal) rekindling his old love affair with Madame Dubonnet, the principal of the finishing school (played very knowingly by Janie Dee). This is all fine. It was fun, frivolous and silly – I can enjoy that.
The scene that made me pause was based on the problematic character of Lord Brockhurst, a lecherous old man chasing after the young girls behind his wife’s back. Lord Brockhurst (played by Adrian Edmondson) sings a song called ‘It’s Never Too Late To Fall in Love’ and the comedy of the scene is meant to come from the fact that the woman he is flirting with is in fact his own boring wife (played by Issy van Randwyck), hiding behind a fan. This is what prompted me to look around the audience. There were a few people who seemed to be laughing, but I was not one of them and I don’t think I was alone. When recreating a period piece such as this, there will always be a tension when contemporary society has moved on in relation to an issue and a question as to whether and how far such scenes should be changed to fit better with current sentiments. I understand that some of the song lyrics were slightly altered but that did not prevent this uncomfortable situation slightly tarnishing the show. If you’re reading this then you’re probably already the kind of person who likes musicals – but if you were not, and if you watched such antics out of context, you might easily find yourself thinking that musicals are both out of touch and irrelevant.
Luckily, the springy younger cast members shone out with their talent. In fact, the main reason for going to watch this show is the fabulous dancing. The chirpy charleston danced by Maisie (Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson) and Bobby (Jack Butterworth) in ‘Won’t You Charleston With Me‘ is everything you could want it to be. Polly and Tony completely nail their tap routine in ‘I Could Be Happy With You’, and Pepe (Matthew Ives) and Lolita (Bethany Huckle) perform an extraordinarily violent tango in ‘Carnival Tango’. It was quite a feat for Bill Deamer to fit all this dancing onto the tiny floor space, particularly when the entire company was together on the diagonal stage. Watching it all up close in the intimate environment of the Menier Chocolate Factory was an absolute treat.
Go see The Boy Friend for the escapism, the singing and the marvellous dancing. And try to focus on that.
The Boy Friend will be performed at the Menier Chocolate Factory from 22 November to 7 March 2020. For more information and to book tickets, click here.