BWW Review: THE BOY FRIEND, Menier Chocolate Factory
How ripping! A saucy French maid doing the Charleston with a handsome chap in tennis whites sets the scene for the most delightful escapism in town: Matthew White's gossamer-light revival of Sandy Wilson's 1953 love letter to the Roaring Twenties. It was once the third-longest-running stage musical, and boosted Julie Andrews' career on Broadway.We're in the French Riviera, at Madame Dubonnet's finishing school, where the "perfect young ladies" are alternately learning society manners and lusting after the local boys.
But Polly Browne has "poor little rich girl" problems: because her father's a millionaire, she can't tell whether her beaux are serious or just after her fortune. Enter earnest messenger boy Tony, delivering her costume for the carnival ball - can their love survive some well-intended deception and parental meddling?
That's as high as the stakes get, with a self-consciously dramatic Act II cliffhanger, but such is the pleasure of this perfectly pitched production. White gets the tone just right: sincere enough that you invest in its likeable toffs, but with a dash of knowing wit, so that we're laughing with, not at, the show's dafter aspects. The only minor misstep is having two intervals when one would do; the audience could easily wait a few minutes for the elaborate scene change, which is a spectacle in itself.
Paul Farnsworth's design is quite literally dazzling, lit by Paul Anderson's sparkling rose-gold wash - so delicious you want to eat it up with a spoon. There's a white baby grand piano and wrought-iron gazebo set against a jewel-like, aquamarine sky, "la plage" with hovering seagulls, and a climactic ball with Chinese lanterns and ever-flowing Champagne. The clothes, too, are sinfully pleasurable, from Janie Dee's Madame Dubonnet swathed in silk scarves, to the old-fashioned bathing attire and outlandish carnival costumes.
But best of all is the combination of Wilson's jazzy pastiche score and Bill Deamer's immaculate choreography - the latter working wonders in a small space. There are multiple hummable tunes, particularly the catchy title number, and a nice balance between the bouncy, cheery numbers, specialties like a moody tango, and wistful melodies. All are well-tailored to their specific characters.
Gabrielle Lewis Dodson's flirtatious "Madcap Maisie" and Jack Butterworth as her swaggering but sometimes exasperated boyfriend Bobby (reminiscent of Kiss Me, Kate's Bianca and Bill) get a furiously energetic Charleston with impressive high kicks, loose-limbed flapper ease, and a whimsical seated section - showing how in sync they are, despite their squabbles. But there's still some teasing tension in Maisie juggling her boys in the tap-tastic "Safety in Numbers".
In contrast, Amara Okereke's Polly and Dylan Mason's Tony have movement to match their sweetly awkward meet-cute - light and airy, and, as they grow more attached, evoking the lush, romantic MGM Golden Age numbers with effortlessly mirrored zigzags and floating turns. But there's still a gentle modesty to it, as when they haltingly mime their idea of domestic bliss in their "simple" home (in, well, Bloomsbury).
There's a well-evoked sense of youthful spirit and naiveté - sometimes played for laughs, but never mocked. That's best captured by the schoolgirls (Lewis-Dodson, Annie Southall, Emily Langham and Chloé Goodliffe) chirping and squealing in unison: a very funny effect, yet their friendships are also rather endearing. Novelty dance "The Riviera" is a total blast - if a fairly blatant rip-off of Good News's similar "Varsity Drag".
That's set against the travails of the older generation, as Dee's Madame Dubonnet rekindles her romance with Robert Portal's initially buttoned-up Percival. Dee is an absolute riot here, from the knowing looks over glasses perched on her nose to the wandering cod-French accent and - beneath the artistic flourishes - the sense of a kind, wise and still smoulderingly sensual woman. She oozes her way through a bluesy number, and shares a beautiful duet with Okereke.
Okereke, if there's any justice, is on her way to becoming a musical theatre megastar. She has exquisite, crystal-clear vocals, moves with precision and grace, supplies clever little comic beats, and lends Polly the kind of open-hearted authenticity that immediately gets the audience onside. Plus it's wonderful (and shouldn't need commenting on, but here we are) to see an accomplished actress of colour leading this kind of nostalgic piece.
There's also a show-stopping turn from Tiffany Graves as maid Hortense, leading the irresistible "It's Nicer in Nice" with soprano trills through to sexy growls, can-can kicks and almighty lifts. Slightly more problematic is the lecherous married man lusting after younger women, but Adrian Edmondson's bumbling comedy works well enough, as does Issy van Randwyck as his formidable wife.
The bright, brassy band, under musical supervisor Simon Beck, do justice to David Cullen's vivacious orchestrations. And, for the full French experience, the Menier's restaurant has an excellent set meal. Forget Brexit, forget dismal weather, forget the election: escape to this sun-drenched, jubilant, musical comedy paradise. The perfect winter warmer.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan