Madame Dubonnet's finishing school for well-bred young girls of rich parentage provides the backdrop for this musical pastiche of 1920s nonsense by composer and lyricist Sandy Wilson. Apparently Wilson adored the music of the '20s and, when asked to write a musical for the Player's Theatre in the grey days of post-war Britain, found no difficulty in rustling-up a show that, when it transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in 1954, romped through more than 2,000 performances. 'The Boy Friend' was subsequently turned into a film by Ken Russell in 1971, debuting Twiggy and copying the style of Busby Berkeley dance numbers, though meeting much disapproval from Wilson.
This open air treatment of 'The Boy Friend' is faithful to the spirit of Wilson's concept, and provides a witty and affectionate, though generally safe interpretation of the show by director Ian Talbot and his team. Almost as loud and camp in the design department as it's possible to be - and that really isn't a criticism - a huge number of parasols on poles are dotted liberally around the stage, and ornate sandcastles decorate the edges of the acting area. There's almost a picture postcard feel to Paul Farnsworth's set design that suitably evokes a bye-gone era - and one that for many of us is more imaginary than real since it's set in the up-market locale of the French Riviera, the playground of the rich. At the back of the set, the excellent band under the capable direction of Catherine Jayes, sports evening dress, and loud striped suits for the boys, brightly coloured bathing costumes for the beach scenes and a riot of exotic costumes for the carnival ball sequence, complete the camp theatricality of the piece. However, the overall effect is nevertheless endearing, even if it's decidedly stereotypical.
What seems most important at Madame Dubonnet's finishing school, is getting your paws on a boy friend - there doesn't seem to be much evidence of any educational activity taking place, unless you count shopping or preparing for a fancy dress ball. And Madame Dubonnet herself has a seductively erotic personality which might be more at home in a quite different establishment with an all-male clientèle.
When the show starts, the girls are at fever pitch, giggling and screaming rather raucously, as they anticipate the upcoming carnival ball, and share their plans for snaring a boy friend. One of the girls, Polly Browne, tells her chums that she's expecting her boy friend from Paris, but in reality hasn't got one. So, when handsome messenger, Tony, arrives to deliver her costume, she takes a chance and invites him to accompany her to the ball. However there's more to Tony than his humble career status might suggest, and the back story is filled-in when his parents, Lord and Lady Brockhurst, fetch-up on the scene, and a sub-plot involving a romantic entanglement between Polly's father and Madame Dubonnet adds an extra layer to what is a fairly transparent and elementary plot.
The first act set a lively pace with plenty of humour. In contrast though, the second act seemed a little more sluggish, and didn't have quite the same impact or charisma. Still, it picked up again in the third act when we got to the carnival ball which gives even more opportunity to exploit camp costumes - with Madame Dubonnet, for example, in sparkling evening wear that could blind at several hundred metres.
Rachel Jerram acquits herself very well indeed, debuting in the lead role as Polly Browne. Director Ian Talbot puts in a suitably lecherous appearance as Lord Brockhurst, and Anna Nichols is a mysteriously sensual Madame Dubonnet. The remainder of the cast cope admirably with the simple but effective dance routines - especially the tap sequence and the Charleston, a dance I always find somewhat bizarre - and the singing is generally good and easily up to the job, though unexceptional.
The musical numbers are largely melodic, and infectiously hummable, though undemanding on either the ear or the brain. Most notable are 'The Boy Friend' and 'I could be happy with you'. But both those numbers are repeated three times, which I always find irritating and something of a let-down, and with only 15 musical numbers in total, it seems a little on the thin side. Still, the band was in fine form - often sounding like a big band, rather than a mere ensemble of 9.
'The Boy Friend' is, of course, rather dated now and seems to lack relevance for modern audiences - at least in the sense that it has anything meaningful to tell us, if it ever did! But looking round the audience, there was a wide range of ages represented, and the twenty-somethings, sitting on the grassy slopes at the edges of this charming venue, seemed totally mesmerised. And the appreciation came thick and fast, even though the dialogue and some of the business is eminently predictable. I suppose the explanation for the show captivating the audience in this way is that it really has no pretensions about what it is - even though the plot revolves around highly pretentious personalities. Certainly 'The Boy Friend' is unremittingly camp as well as contrived, but it has a uniquely endearing charm that even the most brittle of hard-hearted theatre-goers will find difficult to resist. In effect, it's simply old-fashioned escapism which doesn't require much in the way of thought or concentration, and actually turns out to be rather relaxing, entertaining and agreeable. And if that isn't recommendation enough, my neighbour sitting next to me thought this production was as good as the original he saw in 1954. And finally, Sandy Wilson himself - sporting a straw boater - gave an eloquent and witty speech at the end of the show, describing it as 'a superb production' and adding that 'The Boy Friend is young again' - from the 'horse's mouth', one might say!
What the popular press had to say.....
KIERON QUIRKE for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "How wonderful...A divine evening." SUSAN ELKIN for THE STAGE says, "Flawless production."
External links to full reviews from popular press