Sandy Wilson’s love letter to the roaring twenties was a roaring hit when it first appeared in London back in 1954, yet The Boy Friend has rarely been revived since. Even when it did find its way back to the stage in the eighties and nineties, Wilson was usually involved, so this latest production at the Menier Chocolate Factory has the opportunity to feel somewhat new and refreshed.
It is very much a pastiche of 1920’s musicals, with some well-aimed swipes at composers of the era. Nestled in the sunny South of France, the pupils of Madame Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies all dream of one thing and one thing only, that certain thing, the boy friend. Polly Browne is almost inconsolable at the fact that she doesn’t have a partner for this evening’s masquerade ball, and has resorted to inventing a fictional beau. Her friend Maisie has no such problem, courting the affections not only of Bobby Van Husen, but half the young men in Nice too.
Suddenly, messenger boy, Tony seems to answer all of Polly’s prayers, if only she knew he was the son of a Lord, and he knew she was the daughter of a millionaire. The girl’s determination that they couldn’t live without a man in their lives means that in the modern day, The Boy Friend becomes less of a pastiche and more of a parody of a pastiche, but it’s all done so brilliantly well under Matthew White’s direction you find yourself swept up in the undiluted charm of it all.
Given the setting it’s no surprise to find this chirpy, perky musical is full of spectacular dance numbers, from captivating charlestons to ferocious foxtrots, and a surprising tango, Bill Deamer’s choreography is as crisp as Bobby Van Husen’s white shirt. A large cast in a small space makes the achievement all the more admirable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if half the audience were wishing they could leap from their seats to join in.
The highlight of The Boy Friend though, is a slew of flawless performances from a very talented cast, Tiffany Graves is a delightful Hortense, while Janie Dee positively sparkles as Madame Dubonnet. Jack Butterworth is outstanding as Bobby Van Husen, demonstrating exceptionally impressive dance skills.
Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson, Annie Southall, Emily Langham and Chloe Goodliffe are the girls of Villa Caprice, who often talk and sing in high pitched unison, and are wonderful to watch, it’s impossible not to be touched by their infectious enthusiasm. Amara Okereke and Dylan Mason as Polly and Tony lead the cast perfectly as the charismatic, if somewhat naïve, young lovers.
On top of the fantastic performances, the whole thing looks wonderful. The stage is reset at each interval (there are two) with white trellis framing the action, and warm, bright lighting giving us a sense of the location, while the odd plastic seagull reminds us not to take things too seriously. And as the cherry on the cake, Paul Farnsworth’s gorgeous costume design makes every character ooze with the style and sophistication they deserve.
The Boy Friend is that certain thing we are all looking for; the perfect antidote to modern life, fun and frivolity to the point where, for a couple of hours at least, we can feel as carefree as they did in the twenties. Joyous and delightful, you’ll find yourself grinning with glee from start to finish, and falling head over heels in love with Sandy Wilson’s marvellous musical.