The Boy Friend
Menier Chocolate Factory
Reviewed – 4th December 2019
“The pleasure of this joyous revival stems in no small part from its truly gorgeous visual impact”
Set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, The Boy Friend was an instant hit on the London stage when it premiered in 1953. It is an affectionate, sun-drenched, period pastiche, and terribly terribly English. The book follows a tried and tested romantic comedy formula: runaway rich boy meets rich girl pretending not to be, they fall in love, overcome a tiny obstacle, and end up in one another’s arms. There is an older comedy couple – man with a roving eye and battleaxe wife – who overcome their differences and fall in love a second time; an older romantic couple, whose love, too, is rekindled, and three satellite young girls, all of whom wind up with their beaux at the show’s close. So far so hackneyed. But you don’t come to The Boy Friend for the plot.
The pleasure of this joyous revival stems in no small part from its truly gorgeous visual impact. Paul Farnsworth’s set is a delicate filigree, bringing to mind bandstands and the balmy air of long summer evenings. Paul Anderson’s stunning lighting design complements each setting and mood perfectly, with a beautiful, bold palette that makes the heart soar. The costumes too are divine, in particular those of the marvellously chic Madame Dubonnet, although the male outfits in the final carnival scene do let the side down a little. The sequins seem somewhat tawdry when set next to the pierrots and Maisie’s whimsical butterfly.
It is very easy to imagine this production on a West End stage, and it seems highly likely that it will transfer, but it was a delight to see it up close in the Menier Chocolate Factory, and to hear it up close too. The orchestra, directed by Simon Beck, was a triumph, and performed Sandy Wilson’s score with the brio and tenderness it deserves. And the dancing… The dancing was out of this world. Sharp, snappy, sexy, infectious, fabulous. Terrific choreography from Bill Deamer and a knockout dance performance from Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson, as Maisie, in particular. This production is well cast, and all the principals shine. Amara Okereke is a perfect Polly – all innocence and charm – and has a radiant soprano which is blissful to listen to; Dylan Mason’s Tony is earnest and gauche, and there is delightful on-stage chemistry between them. Janie Dee brings some star quality to the delicious, flirtatious Madame Dubonnet; Tiffany Graves is full of fun and mischief as Hortense and Adrian Edmonson gives a peerless comic turn as Lord Brockhurst.
There are a few wrinkles in the fabric – Act III loses pace, mainly owing to the superfluous tango routine, and the shrillness of Polly’s three friends is overdone – but, in essence, The Boy Friend falls around you with the caress of a fine silk kimono and you can head off into the cold December night with the warmth of the Riviera in your step.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Manuel Harlan
The Boy Friend
Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th March
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Biograph Girl
Reviewed – 24th May 2018
“Occasional ripples stir up the action but the whole staging needs a good shake up”
Commissioned as part of the Finborough’s ‘Celebrating British Music Theatre’ series, “The Biograph Girl” is playing on the London stage for the first time since its 1980 premiere. With book and lyrics by Warner Brown and music by David Heneker (the composer of “Half A Sixpence”) it is a celebration of Hollywood’s glorious era of silent film, charting the fifteen years during which the industry transformed itself from its disreputable, ‘fleapit’ beginnings through to the birth of the first talking pictures and its glamorous multi-million dollar prime. In 1912, no self-respecting actor would appear in the “flickers”, as they were referred to, but by 1927, those same artistes, with the help of trail blazing moguls, laid the foundations of the movie business and launched the Hollywood star system.
The show is a nostalgic reminiscence of the silent movies, a tale of the heartbreaks and triumphs of the key players, concentrating on the flawed genius of director David Wark Griffith, along with Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, both of them great silent film stars. Mary Pickford was known as ‘The Biograph Girl’ – after the studio – though this telling of the story fails to justify her having the titular role. This is very much Griffith’s story, played with a cool assurance by Jonathan Leinmuller. Sophie Linder-Lee’s Pickford, while emulating the original character, replaces her outward innocence with petulance which distances her from the audience’s sympathy. Instead Emily Langham quietly pulls focus with her sensitive portrayal of Lillian Gish – the ‘First Lady of American Cinema’.
The intimate space of the Finborough captures the ad hoc feel of early cinema where everything was done on a shoestring and sets were often cramped and improvised, and in this way the piece certainly lends itself to the confined dimensions of the theatre. The almost total lack of set however, whether a deliberate concept or one dictated by budget, strips the play of any sense of location. Likewise, Holly Hughes’ choreography abandons any perception of the period.
What does capture the moments of nostalgia and hold our attention is Warner Brown’s book and David Heneker’s music. The tunes are sophisticated yet still memorable. One particular highlight is Joshua C. Jackson’s heartfelt rendition of ‘Rivers of Blood’, a politically charged number that was cut from the original production. The cast deliver the ensemble numbers with a collective poise that emphasises Heneker’s skills as a composer, while Musical Director Harry Haden-Brown calmly navigates them through the score. Sometimes too calmly.
And there lies the problem with this production: there is no turbulence. Occasional ripples stir up the action but the whole staging needs a good shake up. Director Jenny Eastop has missed a whole bag of tricks and has merely delivered a monochrome product that should be fizzing with flashes of light and shade. It is a gift of a story, and a much more innovative staging is needed to do justice to this hugely talented cast too. The subject matter (and Heneker’s music) is too important. In his heyday, poetic beauty was something David Wark Griffith most wanted from the screen. He felt that the motion picture industry was losing sight of that, declaring later in his life: “We have taken beauty and exchanged it for stilted voices”. Eastop should take note.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
The Biograph Girl
Finborough Theatre until 9th June
Previously reviewed at this venue