There are few places in London more ideal for a summer night’s entertainment than the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, and Ian Talbot’s tight, taut and affectionate revival of Sandy Wilson’s imperishable musical comedy is one of the finest productions in its history. This much was acknowledged at the first night, when Wilson, now aged 82 but looking dapper and fairly spry in a light brown suit and a jaunty boater, took to the stage at the curtain call and received a prolonged standing ovation.
Although The Boy Friend is itself a teasing parody of a certain kind of fluffy 1920s musical, it’s also a work of real charm and distinction in its own right. Talbot understands this and refuses to coarsen the proceedings, or send them up, or add any modernising elements, beyond the necessity of microphones which make half the cast look as though they are wearing cumbersome deaf aids.
Polly Browne, the poor little rich girl who’s keeping boyfriends at bay in case they turn out to be gold-diggers, is being “finished” at Madame Dubonnet’s charm school on the Riviera. Her father, Percival, arrives to stir the embers of an old affair with Dubonnet, or “Kiki” as she was once known. Polly falls in love with the delivery boy, Tony, and invites him to the carnival, where he turns out to be an entirely suitable fiancé. Meanwhile, on the beach, “sur le plage”, Tony’s father, Lord Brockhurst, is flirting with the girls who find “safety in numbers”. All ends, in high spirits, with a chorus of “I Could Be Happy With You.”
The musical is timeless because of its Swiss watch precision and perfect, almost ruthless, construction. Paul Farnsworth’s design is a riot of blue parasols on a sandcastle surround of the Nice landscape. The three acts are perfectly suited to this setting, and the fading light of a summer evening, as we move from the school, to the beach and the carnival. The costumes are particularly colourful, and in Rachel Jerram as Polly, the Park has revealed a genuine new talent, fresh out of drama school.
Ian Talbot himself is a delightful Lord Brockhurst, hotly pursued by his indignant wife (“Hubert!”) whom Jennifer Piercey plays with a softer edge than is usual, just as Steven Pacey’s “petit Percy” is a charmingly restrained old buffer. Summer Strallen is a brilliant Maisie, dancing up a storm with Michael Rouse’s Bobby Van Husen (“Won’t you Charleston with Me?”), and there are nicely turned, and perfectly tuned, performances from Claire Carrie as the maid Hortense, Anna Nicholas as the exotic Mme Dubonnet and Joshua Dallas as Tony.
Bill Deamer’s choreography doesn’t miss a trick while managing to be vivacious and new-minted, especially on the beach, where the boys exchange their pastel-striped suits for two-piece swimsuits, and the delightful inset of Tony and Polly’s romantic fantasy, “A Room in Bloomsbury”, is steam-rollered in a torrent of high spirits (“It’s Nicer in Nice”). The upstage band is led from the piano, as usual, by Catherine Jayes, and the magical charm of the show is captivatingly summed up by Talbot’s reminder that “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love.”