Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend at the Menier – review

Janie Dee leads delightful revival of The Boy Friend ★★★★

Dylan Mason & Amara Okereke in The Boy Friend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Even when it was first performed in 1954, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend appeared to hark back to a bygone era, a time of flappers and musical comedies, that preceded the then modern muscular realist musicals like Oklahoma! That it still appeals 65 years later suggests that the secret of its longevity is that it is set not so much in the past as in a world of its own.

This is a world where rich young English ladies attend a finishing school under the benign supervision of Madame Dubonnet, in which English reserve melts in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun and the charms of the French, and in which a little deception and misunderstanding are mere ripples on a smooth voyage to romance and happiness. Put simply, its appeal is that it offers us a utopian world of innocence.

There isn’t much plot to tell you about. A young heiress wants to be loved for herself not her money. She meets a poor delivery boy, they fall in love, but he’s not all he seems. Don’t worry it all works out. In fact, it all works out for everybody’s love lives.

Sandy Wilson could have tried harder to incorporate some less predictable twists or more plausible predicaments but that’s not the point. The point is, to escape to this fantasy world for a couple of hours and bathe in the brightness of the song and dance.

Romantic jaunty and poignant song and dance

Mr Wilson’s delightful songs aspire to Cole Porter and, while not actually reaching the great man’s heights, there is a lot of humour in lines like ‘The mere idea of living in a palace is, so full of fallacies’. Memorable numbers include the romantic I Could Be Happy With You, the jaunty It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love, an unexpectedly poignant Poor Little Pierette and of course The Boy Friend. A quick word of praise here for Simon Beck and his live orchestra for driving the show at a jolly pace.

Tiffany Graves & Company in The Boy Friend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In the intimate space of the Menier, the kicks are so high and the lifts bound so far across the stage that people in the front row may need to duck. Among the many glorious dances, there’s an infectious Charleston performed by Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson and Jack Butterworth (both talented performers to watch out for in the future) and an amusing tango in which the couple come to blows while maintaining the moody moves.

The splendid chorus lines extend to the girls speaking in unison as they flirt with their potential husbands. In fact, given that choreographer Bill Deamer is listed as associate director, it is hard to say where his choreography ends and Matthew White’s direction begins. But all praise to Mr White for honouring the gossamer lightness of this musical while introducing enough down-to-earth physical comedy (with homage to vintage TV) to keep a contemporary audience happy. For example, when the stern French maid Hortense, played with gusto by Tiffany Graves, describes the demureness taught at the school while leaving her legs wide apart as she crosses them. Shades here of Kenny Everett.

Adrian Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can

There’s a touch of Benny Hill when Adrian Edmonson, once a Young One, appears as an old  English lord, whose lechery is thwarted at every turn. It’s behaviour we wouldn’t expect to find funny anymore but in the world of The Boy Friend, even lechery is innocent fun and Mr Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can out of it. He even eats an ice cream lasciviously.

And he is just one of a terrific cast brought together in this Menier production. It’s led by one of the great musical stars of the older generation Janie Dee who steals every scene she’s in with her ‘Allo ‘Allo style French accent (another blast from the TV’s comedy past) and her knowing smile, especially when she seeks to rekindle an old romance with ‘Petit Percy’ played by an appropriately starchy Robert Portal.

And it’s a pleasure to see a star of the new generation Amara Okereke in the lead role of Polly Browne. Her sweet soaring voice and subtle acting convey both the strength and vulnerability of a young woman looking for love. Dylan Mason plays her suitor with fresh faced innocence.

Paul Farnsworth’s simple Mediterranean blue set is entirely appropriate and his 1920s style costumes are bright, elegant and fun.

You won’t come away from The Boy Friend feeling you’ve had a substantial meal but you will have enjoyed a superb sorbet.

The Boy Friend is performing at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 7 March 2020.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

The Watsons at The Menier Chocolate Factory

Laura Wade’s play is funny, thought-provoking and exhilarating

★★★★★

The Watsons starts as a fairly conventional adaptation of a Jane Austen story taking place on a lovely white set by Ben Stones.

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Emma needs a husband and the question is, which of the three contenders will she end up marrying? Will it be for love or money? But this is an unfinished novel so we reach a point where the plot runs out and, suddenly, the author of the play steps in to prevent it going in an unintended direction. Played by Louise Ford, she’s a wonderful combination of determination and exasperation. From here on, it’s mayhem all the way.

At first it’s a conversation between the playwright Laura and the lead character Emma. Grace Moloney makes her totally believable as a typically intelligent witty Jane Austen heroine who takes the opportunity to figuratively (or, come to think of it, literally) rip off her stays.

Soon all the other characters are involved. Laura has a clear idea of how the story should develop but these are not her characters: they’re Jane Austen’s. They have their own ideas and Laura starts to lose the plot.

Quite mind-blowing

Thus we enter into an exploration of the creative process and, if that sounds a little dry, let me assure you it’s more like entering a flume ride. Many authors have talked about how characters take on a life of their own and begin to dictate the plot. Here it happens in front of our eyes. And of course the author, even though she’s called Laura, is a character herself created by the actual playwright Laura Wade.

Grace Moloney and Louise Ford in The Watsons. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The play becomes mind blowing as Ms Wade digs through the layers of implications and branches out in many directions to explore artistic creation and women’s experience.

She raises questions of free will and predestination. The characters are the creations of a God-like author but we living human beings also ask how much we are in charge of our destinies and how much our character seals our fate.

It’s partly an argument about whether you should conform or be true to yourself but when the characters put taking control to a vote, it also raises a cheeky referendum-related question of whether people should have a say if they don’t have all the information.

When the characters take charge, anarchy reigns. People behave out-of-character or perhaps as they would without the restraints of society’s rules, in this case a society created by the author. You see what I mean when I say this work is vertiginous.

A head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Watsons is a head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade whose reputation is already high after her brilliant Home, I’m Darling. Directed by her husband Samuel West with a lightness of touch, the production makes the most of every opportunity for humour. There is a wonderful moment just after the characters have just discovered that they are in a play. When Laura steps through the fourth wall, as one they gasp and sway backwards.

You also realise that the significance of the white set is probably that the author hasn’t filled in the details.

There is the odd moment when the examination of the author’s own situation feels a little indulgent but The Watsons delivers a funny, thought-provoking, exhilarating evening.

The Watsons is running at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 16 November 2019 and will open at the Harold Pinter Theatre on 8 May 2020

Paul saw a preview performance of The Watsons. On 18 February 2020, Paul changed his rating of The Watsons to 5 stars

Click here to watch the video review of The Watsons on YouTube

The Lie at The Menier – Review

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Alexander Hanson & Samantha Bond Excel In Zeller’s Comedy

Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond in The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Watch my review of The Lie at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube
Is honesty the foundation of a strong marriage or should you lie in order to preserve your relationship? The former is ideal, the latter inevitable: that seems to be premise of The Lie, Florian Zeller’s new play at Menier Chocolate Factory.

A couple may or may not be having affairs. The fast-paced 90 minutes without interval is a constant cat-and-mouse game between them and with us the audience. Truths are stated that may be lies and lies that may be true. As an audience, every time we think we know where we are, the ground disappears from under us and we fall upon the next truth or deception.

Just to rub in that we really didn’t know what was going on, there is a clever moment when you think the play is finished and you get an extra scene in which you find out you really had no idea.

Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath are the epitome of French chic

Florian Zeller, as you may know from The Father, The Mother and The Truth, writes clever dialogue, full of tricks, and Christopher Hampton supplies a superb translation from the original French. To work, comedy needs pace and timing. Lindsay Posner’s production is fortunate in having a cast that couldn’t be bettered.

Samantha Bond’s facial expressions are to be treasured. Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath are the epitome of French chic. But it’s the facial reactions, the double takes, even the way he says ‘hmmm?’ that make Alexander Hanson the star of the show. You can see his character’s brain working.

This was an exhilarating evening, with many laughs and offering quite a bit of food for thought. It falls down through the lack of depth of its characters. And, although there is a more serious edge than in many comedies, the world of middle class marital deception is overfamiliar, the more so if you saw this play’s companion piece The Truth.

Since deception, of one’s self and others, is the foundation stone of comedy, The Lie should probably be even funnier than it is. Having said that, Florian Zeller slightly below par still provides an enjoyable evening.

The Lie continues at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 18 November 2017

Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

P.S. I love Menier Theatre but felt let down by the venue on this occasion. For the first time, I sat in the area of seating near to the air conditioning on the high numbers side. I asked for it to be turned off but it stayed on throughout the show. Consequently my neck and ear were subjected to an uncomfortably cold draught the whole time.