Hands up everyone who thought The Boy Friend and Salad Days were written by the same people? Oh, just me then. They really are frightfully similar in outlook; Sandy Wilson’s Boy Friend opened at Wyndham’s in January 1954, and Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ Salad Days opened in Bristol six months later. After the dark days of the Second World War, theatregoers were happy to celebrate an innocent 1920s era of charming young fillies and dashing young chaps looking to the future with hopes and dreams of super friendships and loving marriages. One’s only care was not getting caught by Madame Dubonnet’s (very slightly) disapproving gaze, or trying to conceal your aristocratic background so that people don’t fall in love with you for the wrong reason.
That’s jolly Polly Browne’s problem; she can’t find a suitable boyfriend because he’s bound only to want her for her money, so she’s facing the humiliation of not being escorted to the Carnival Ball due to the minor fact that the boyfriend who was going to accompany her is entirely fictitious. Being left on the shelf at the grand old age of seventeen is an awful bore. Young Tony Brockhurst has a similar problem; bunking off Oxford and fleeing to the French Riviera without a word of explanation to Mater or Pater. He’s making do as an errand boy for the costumiers and is about to deliver Polly’s dress to Mme Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies, when he espies her, and she espies him, and within three minutes they’re in love. Amazingly, because this is the musical theatre of the 1950s, Polly’s old man is in town, rekindling his thing for Mme Dubonnet; and Tony’s old folks are also sur la plage, getting into all sorts of embarrassing scrapes as decency will permit. Coincidence, much?
Matthew White’s had the wizard idea of reviving The Boy Friend for the Menier, presenting it in its full original glory, as a breath of fresh air with a whiff of kindly romance and an homage to the Charleston. Just as the post-war theatregoers needed taking out of themselves, us 2020-types also need to have our minds taken off the horrors of Brexit and the threat of war in the Middle East; so this is immaculate timing. The production has taken the bold, and I think totally pukka decision to keep the three-act structure, so yes, to assembled gasps of surprise, we have two intervals just like they did in the olden days, when going to the theatre was the reason for the evening out rather than one of the things you managed to cram in before bedtime. The original production would have been a pastiche of 1920s shows, and by keeping the same flavour and nuances, you could say this works as a pastiche of a pastiche.
Paul Farnsworth’s sunny set recreates the blue sky and the sandy beach, which, mixed with some wonderful period costumes – especially the all-over swimsuits – places us firmly in the mood for a beachball fight and cocktails on the terrace. Simon Beck’s bijou little band punches above its weight with its perky playing of Sandy Wilson’s cheery numbers and the terrific ensemble throw themselves so wholeheartedly into this delightful piece of nonsense that I was left with a stupid grin permanently etched on my face for a full two and a half hours.
In the senior roles, Janie Dee is excellent as always as Mme Dubonnet, ostensibly perhaps a stickler for proper behaviour, but scrape the surface and she’s pure Goddess of Lurve all the way through. Littering her performance with wonderfully Frenchy breathiness, she’s both musically and comedically perfect. Matching her is Robert Portal’s chiefly dignified (but not always) Percival Browne as her long-lost paramour, exporting his British civility across the sea. I loved Adrian Edmondson and Issy van Randwyck as Lord and Lady Brockhurst; he, mischievously wandering the seafront in search of adventure, she, repressed and disgruntled until she gets sozzled; a brilliant partnership.
Amongst the young things, Amara Okereke is charm incarnate as Polly, with an engaging, funny and strongly musical performance; she’s joined by Dylan Mason, perfectly cast as the unassuming and sincere Tony – together they make a properly lovely couple. There are fantastic song and dance skills from Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as Maisie and Jack Butterworth as Bobby, erupting their Charleston all over the stage with a great sense of fun and a huge amount of expertise. Add to this, there’s great support from Bethany Huckle, Emily Langham and Chloe Goodliffe as Polly’s schoolgirl (really?) colleagues and Tom Bales, Peter Nash and Ryan Carter as their respective beaux. Running through the show like a naughty stick of rock is a fantastic performance by Tiffany Graves as the maid Hortense, all knowing looks, high kicks and seductive utterances.
A bewitchingly delightful production in the safest of hands, this brought a sense of innocent joy into an otherwise dark January. I absolutely loved it. It’s playing at the Menier until 7th March. What are you waiting for, mes petits choux?
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
In a nutshell: Bright, funny and all-round delightful revival of Sandy Wilson’s landmark work; an exceptional cast means the smile never leaves your face.