“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.
“witty and intelligent in a way that both complements and complicates Austen”
Emma Woodhouse is one of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters – but what of Emma Watson? Austen abandoned her first Emma, heroine of the unfinished novel The Watsons, in 1805. Since then, several authors have sought to give Emma the ending she deserves.
Laura Wade is the latest writer to undertake the challenge, though she has the distinction of being a playwright rather than a novelist. Nor is she a relative of Austen’s, as many early contributors to The Watsons were. But, despite her apparent distance, Wade is more deeply involved than any of her predecessors.
Emma Watson (Grace Molony) was sent to live with her aunt as a child and now returns, aged nineteen, to the modest family estate. Sent straight into society, she soon has the attentions of three local men. But, just as she accepts a proposal from awkward aristocrat Lord Osborne (Joe Bannister), Laura (Louise Ford) bursts into the story to stop Emma making a terrible mistake. What follows is the story that Laura wants to tell, the story behind the telling of it, and the story of the characters that won’t let her have her way.
Even for those who aren’t Austen fans (me), The Watsons is a joy to watch. Wade’s script is witty and intelligent in a way that both complements and complicates Austen. She adds plenty of commentary, some of it topical, but much of it personal, about the struggle to write and the pressure of storytelling. In mixing her story with Austen’s, she manages to preserve what is special about the original work whilst amplifying it to new heights.
But what of the all-important end? Wade leaves us with just a taster of what is to come, but no more. Her strategy for finishing the story is as smart as the story itself, but does feel a tad rushed. There is not much insight given as to why Emma chooses to give Laura back control. I can only assume that she felt lost or afraid, but this is just speculation. A definite answer could really have cemented this, and given the audience a greater sense of Emma’s inner self.
One thing that cannot be faulted is the acting. There is not a single performance that does not hit its mark. Molony is a brilliant heroine, at once endearing and infuriating as she demands the right to tell her own story – at any cost. Louise Ford is so convincing a Laura that, for a second, you forget that there is another Laura, writing this Laura and everything else that’s going on. It is hard to choose the highlights of the remaining cast. Performances that immediately spring to mind are Jane Booker’s haughty Lady Osborne, Sally Bankes’ no nonsense Nanny, and Sophie Duval’s Mrs Robert – who, despite being ‘not in it very much’ makes her presence felt at all times. Credit must also be given to designer Ben Stones, whose blank page of a stage is the perfect space for Wade’s experimentation.
Despite initial reservations, this is one of the most enjoyable pieces of theatre I have seen in a while, full of energy and wit that even Austen herself would have found impressive. And I think I quite like Jane Austen now, which means that, not only has Laura Wade written an excellent play, she has done the impossible.