Review - The Boy Friend at the Menier Chocolate Factory
London's Menier Chocolate Factory has an enviable track record with its Christmas musicals, many of which have subsequently transferred to the West End, including Little Shop of Horrors, Sweet Charity, Merrily We Roll Along, Funny Girl and last year's entry Fiddler on the Roof (which has just ended its run at the Playhouse), and some that have moved to both the West End and then Broadway, including Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music and Sweet Charity. And while every one of those titles has more cultural and dramatic weight than this year's revival of The Boy Friend, I'm not sure any have been as downright fun and utterly joyous as this.
I can already confidently predict a fast transfer to the West End for what has to be the happiest (and downright silliest) show in London right now. Sandy Wilson's musical, originally premiered at the Players Theatre in 1953 before transferring to the Wyndham's, where it ran for over 5 years, was a gleeful throwback to an earlier age even when it was written, resembling a 1920s musical comedy (even the title was an acknowledgement of one: Rodgers and Hart's 1926 show The Girl Friend).
But as filtered through a post-millennium lens - which has it performed now with a knowing combination of sincerity and sass - it is the perfect antidote to the breadth and depth of more recent musicals like Hamilton. In fact, it barely merits comparison: this is a show with hardly a thought in its giddy head, merely a determination to delight and entertain.
Though it may be very possible for some to resist such entreaties, for me it did so in spades. I found it entirely an effervescent delight. I can even report that my reaction was noted: a person sitting on the opposite side of the auditorium to me remarked afterwards that he watched me wrapped in a constant smile.
Of course it's silly, it's a tale of romantic entanglements on the French Riviera, where the young attendees of a finishing school of young ladies find themselves pairing off, while their elders embark on other liaisons. But it's also irresistibly bright, hilariously funny, and gorgeously tuneful. Sandy Wilson's songs are, almost without exception, ear-worms that instantly burrow (and occasionally pummel) their way into your senses.
Under the bouncy musical direction of Simon Beck of an onstage nine-piece band, it is performed with sparkling allure by a cast who sing it blissfully and dance through the show with unstoppable movement by choreographer Bill Deamer, who returns to the show after previously choreographing London's last major revival at Regent's Park's Open Air Theatre in 2006. The dancing, which stretches from Charleston to tango, is tightly drilled, exhilarating and perfectly in period.
So are all the performances. There isn't a weak link in the company. If Tiffany Graves threatens to steal the show as the French maid Hortense, everyone has their moment to be a scene-stealer, from the dancers to Janie Dee's supremely effortless performance as the stylish Madame Dubonnet, who runs the school, and Amara Okereke as pupil Polly Browne, a millionaire heiress who tries to disguise her background when she falls for a young man, himself pretending to be a delivery boy but who is in fact the son of a Lord.
I said it was silly, but there's also something profound in the sheer joy it generates. It is all handsomely housed in Paul Farnsworth's delightful French Riviera settings of bandstands and sky vistas, while his beautiful costumes are a treat themselves.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan