When you want to get a PhD in theatre, moderated perhaps by some easily-triggered Professor from the University of the Balls Pond Road, do your thesis on the subliminal Socialist message of musicals where rich people pretend to be poor in order to fall in love.
Obviously, Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Mikado will form the core of the dissertation, but you could save fifteen thousand words for a forensic analysis of the plot of The Boy Friend where millionaire’s daughter Polly Browne, a student at Madame Dubonnet’s finishing school on the French Riviera, persuades the son of Lord Brockhurst, lightly disguised as a delivery boy, that she’s merely a secretary instead of an heiress.
It really is that thin, and that tedious.
It also appears to have escaped almost everyone involved with the revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory that Sandy Wilson wrote The Boy Friend in 1953 as a satire. It seems to be hammily acted because the director has told the cast that’s how they did it in the 1920s French window and ‘anyone for tennis’ school of theatre.
It would have been better to sit them down in front of the 1971 Ken Russell film to see the genuine simplicity Twiggy brought to the lead role.
Amara Okereke has a beautiful singing voice, but she doesn’t quite transmit the gossamer light presence of a twenties flapper. As her suitor, Dylan Mason has charm, but his character also has the deer in headlights look of a puppyish One Show presenter suddenly required to stand in for Emily Maitlis on Newsnight.
So what is being spoofed? English starchiness and post-colonial entitlement on the louche French Riviera — in a batterie of cameos including genuine Dutch baroness Issy van Randwyck impersonating battleaxe Brit Lady Brockhurst, and an extraordinary turn by Adrian Edmondson as her randy old goat of a husband, leering at young girls and surprisingly having nothing better to do with his winter evenings from now until 7 March than a cough and a spit in a fringe musical.
As Madame Dubonnet, Janie Dee is arguably the headline star, but she’s charmingly eclipsed by the splendid Tiffany Graves as her maid Hortense. Graves has the most consistent musical theatre experience of anyone in the company, and the stage lights up when she appears, especially when pointing Nicer in Nice with the ferocity of Jane Lynch from Glee.
The songs are better in the first act — mostly reprises later on — and the band is excellent, swinging the jazz numbers with relish. Bill Deamer’s choreography is vividly inventive and enthusiastically performed even if some of the routines do look a bit like Strictly Come Dancing quarter-finals.
In Mel Brooks’ film Blazing Saddles, the cameras pan away from the cowboys fighting and through the wall of a sound studio where Dom DeLuise is rehearsing a camp troupe of gay men in a song called The French Mistake with the splendid lyric of ‘throw out your hands, stick out your tush, hands on your hips, give ‘em a push’ — which is a direct steal from ‘Doing the Riviera’ in this show.
Couldn’t take it seriously after that.
At the end of a year in which female-forward and feminist theatre has made so much progress, The Boy Friend looks regressive as well as nostalgic. On the other hand, it is a colourful and escapist retreat from the winter, and we could all do with a night off from angst.
The Boy Friend, Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1. Tickets £29.50 (restricted view) to £57.50, until 7 March 2020.