To say that Sandy Wilson’s parody of 1920s comedy musicals amounts to frothy, inconsequential fun is high praise in hard times. At Mme Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies in the South of France, there’s no need to worry about elections or impeachments or anything other than partnering up and living happily ever after.
The Boy Friend will always be known as the show that helped to launch Julie Andrews’ career, back when she made her Broadway debut as Polly Browne in 1954. But 65 years on, the show still holds up – especially in Matthew White’s fizzing revival – as it fondly ridicules the lightness and simplicity of the ‘roaring’ decade while slightly yearning for it, too.
Certainly the clothes were better back then. Paul Farnsworth’s costumes are an endless parade of incredible patterns and hues, balanced nicely against the clean whites and deep blues of the set. For all its luridness, a vivid palette of intense colours and patterns enriched by Paul Anderson’s riviera light, it’s the azure that is most transporting. It takes us to a world of sky, sea and instant eternal love. And, of course, absurd accents like someone doing a bad Gorden Kaye impression.
But it all adds to the fun, the joie de vivre, the sheer silliness of it all. There are a lot of characters in this show, and literally all of them get engaged by the end – except for maid Hortense, a wonderfully chic and slightly stern Tiffany Graves, who wants to carry on being able to sleep with whomever she wants whenever she wants.
Alongside Polly Browne, whose stern millionaire father won’t allow her to lose her heart even as he’s losing his, is a gaggle of four classmates whose every word, giggle and heel-kick is in perfect sync. They’re wonderfully identikit, which comes in handy for Bill Deamer’s bustling choreography full of tap and charlestons, two-steps and tangos.
Adrian Edmondson and Issy van Randwyck have the most fun as Lord and Lady Brockhurst, she an arch and uptight society woman, he a lechy Englishman with high-waisted trousers, just one stop short of tying a hanky to his head.
But the moment that confirms the show’s stars is when, towards the end, Amara Okereke’s Polly, nervous and loveable, duets with Janie Dee’s graceful Mme Dubonnet singing Poor Little Pierrette. It’s an outstanding meeting of voices and generations, two immense talents set loose on a gorgeous song – perhaps the show’s only number that allows itself to be more than simple melody or silly parody.
While White’s production has those occasional moments, its comedy isn’t always on the mark; too indulgent, or fighting against the humour that’s already in the script. But, mostly, for a couple of colourful hours of song and dance and silliness, being in Nice is nicer than not.