BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER
In this difficult Winter of Discontent with many sub-zero evenings, it is not surprising that theatre audiences may crave a dose of escapism.
If so, you can find it at the Menier Chocolate Factory with their wonderful new production of The Boy Friend.
You are transported to the villas and sunny beaches of the Riviera in the roaring 1920s.
Complete with squealing ‘flappers’ who dream about, scheme about, and “have been known to scream about, that simple thing called the boyfriend”.
It does the trick nicely, and musical star Janie Dee’s performance alone is enough to justify going.
Sandy Wilson wrote The Boy Friend in 1953, just as Britain was coming out of post-war austerity and looking for a bit of fun again.
It has always been tongue in cheek, and deliberately frivolous, and, perhaps in consequence, a huge success with audiences.
The first production ran for years rather than days, made Julie Andrews a star, and even attracted the Queen (watch out for her sneaking into the back row).
Ken Russell made a controversial film version in 1971, with Twiggy, which the author hated.
I am sure Sandy Wilson would adore the Menier’s production.
Although this fringe theatre is tight on space, you would not believe it thanks to set and costume designer Paul Farnsworth.
As you enter, the sunny Cote d’Azur is stretched along the back wall, and the small live orchestra cleverly hidden in a bandstand at the side.
The ‘Flappers’ dresses are stitched to perfection by Carole Coates and they make a beautiful sight – Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson, Annie Southall, Emily Langham, and Chloe Goodliffe. Miss Goodliffe looks like she has stepped from a cover of 1920s Vogue.
The (slight) plot concerns a finishing school in the South of France, where these ‘Flappers,’ and their ‘chum’ Polly Brown, are being prepared for the London marriage market.
The girls however have other ideas, attracted as they are by the local talent on the beach including American playboy Booby Van Husen (a perfectly cast dashing Jack Butterworth from Hamilton).
Poor Polly has no luck in love. She is heir to a vast fortune and fears every suitor is simply after her dough.
Amara Okereke plays Polly to perfection, and sometimes feels so real that you want to get up and give her a shoulder to cry on.
Eventually she finds love in Tony the impoverished delivery boy (Dylan Mason), but not without plenty of tears and misunderstandings.
There are successful comedy cameo roles for Adrian Edmondson playing Lord Brockhurst (as far from orange-haired punk Vyvyan in The Young Ones as is humanly possible in one career), Robert Portal and Issy Van Randwyck (from Spooks). And Tiffany Graves is quite wonderful as the French maid Hortense.
However, real star power is to be found coming from Janie Dee. Janie Dee had a big hit earlier this year in the National Theatre’s revival of Follies, and she is just as delightful here.
Madame Dubonnet, the finishing school’s headmistress, is all too willing to join her girls in a high-kicking routine, or a romp sur la plage with the boys.
Talking of high kicks and boys, Choreographer Bill Deamer deserves fulsome praise for pulling off several triumphant numbers in such a small space, and the dancing is excellent.
Not just from the leads and the Flappers but also from the beaux – Tom Bales, Peter Nash and Ryan Carter. The finale costume ball scene (this show has touches of Cinderella), leaves the audience gasping for more.
Well worth it for some light relief on a cruel winter’s evening.
The Boy Friend is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 7.
Call the box Office on 0207 378 1713.
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