Written in the 1950s and set in the interwar period, The Boy Friend is one of those shows that one hears about every so often but opportunities to see a production outside the amateur dramatics circuit are relatively rare. Just as well, then, that this one retains the original setting without a radical reinterpretation.
And while it’s true that they don’t write musicals like this one anymore, that has its pluses and minuses. It harks back to a time when things were less frantic, and people had time to stop for a conversation without being rushed off their feet, is quite refreshing to see – nobody here continues on their way, with a quick, “Another time, perhaps?” as they dash off to wherever they are going. But the narrative reflects this more sedate way of life, too, and for a twenty-first century London audience watching people being civilised, even pleasant, with one another, this show is one hell of a culture shock.
Perhaps I’ve seen too many dark and dystopian shows over the years. This musical has become, for the most part, something of a period piece – when Maisie (Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson) has a number of male suitors to choose from for a ball that evening, Bobby Van Husen (Jack Butterworth), Marcel (Peter Nash), Alphonse (Tom Bales) and Pierre (Ryan Carter) all determine that it is she who must listen to them, without reciprocity. Other aspects do have relevance to modern society – when Tony (a charming Dylan Mason) sings about a desire to get “a room in Bloomsbury”, well, he could get one even in this day and age. If it’s only a room he’s after, he could get one for as ‘little’ as £300,000 – not that I would advise anyone to fork out that much for what is essentially a large box made of bricks.
Then there’s all that dancing that goes on. Two of the musical numbers are called ‘Won’t You Charleston With Me?’ and ‘Carnival Tango’, and the enduring popularity of BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing demonstrates that people do want to watch dancing, irrespective of whether they would take up dancing themselves. The storyline does, admittedly, stop for a few moments at a time while the song and dance take centre stage, and so many numbers are encored it begins to get more than a little repetitive.
I realise I am in danger of being too melancholic, particularly when the cast are giving it their all, for instance, in the big ensemble numbers, performed with style in the relatively small performance space. One lady said at the first interval (there are two, but I hasten to add the three acts are all mercifully brief) that she was getting ‘cheek-ache’ (is that even a word?) from smiling so much. So, it clearly has some appeal, though I wasn’t overly enamoured by the production myself. I enjoyed the dancing – Bill Deamer’s choreography is enthusiastic and energetic, and sat as close as one does in the Menier, the effort this hard-working cast puts in is very much evident.
The story is, to be honest, highly contrived (even by musical comedy standards), rather predictable – and hammy with a capital H. But at least it is consistently so, and the production does well to maintain a healthy level of energy right to the end. Some rather ridiculous French accents were a source of amusement for some, but I found them simply unfunny. The most memorable moment for me was ‘Poor Little Pierrette’, quite a late musical number that sees Madame Dubonnet (Janie Dee), a headmistress, and Polly Browne (Amara Okereke), one of her pupils, bring the house down with their glorious voices. It’s one of those ‘sit back, relax and enjoy’ shows – nothing more and nothing less, an agreeable evening of escapism.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Sandy Wilson’s all-singing all-dancing love letter to 1920s musical comedies returns for the first major London revival in over 10 years. Set in Madame Dubonnet’s finishing school in the south of France, these perfect young ladies burst into song at the least provocation, and forbidden boy friends are forever popping through the French windows to sing and dance with them. Since its premiere in 1953, this light-hearted soufflé of a show has delighted audiences worldwide and has become one of the most well-loved British musicals of all time.
The Boy Friend opened in London in 1953, before a West End run in 1954, and ran for more than 5 years. The subsequent Broadway run in 1954 made a star of the then-unknown Julie Andrews.
Craig Armstrong, Tom Bales, Jack Butterworth, Ryan Carter, Alison Connell, Janie Dee, Adrian Edmondson, Chloe Goodliffe, Tiffany Graves, Bethany Huckle, Matthew Ives, Emily Langham, Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson, Dylan Mason, Peter Nash, Amara Okereke, Robert Portal, Annie Southall, Issy van Randwyck.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Sandy Wilson
Direction – Matthew White
Choreography & Associate Direction – Bill Deamer
Design – Paul Farnsworth
Lighting design – Paul Anderson
Sound Design – Gregory Clarke
Hair & Wig Design – Richard Mawbey
Musical Supervision & Direction – Simon Beck
Orchestrations – David Cullen
Presented in association with DAVID IAN & DAVID MIRVISH
From 22nd November 2019 to 7th March 2020