Review: The Boy Friend (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Sandy Wilson’s musical returns in a new production at the Menier

 Emily Langham (Fay), Annie Southall (Dulcie), Amara Okereke (Polly Browne), Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson (Maisie) and Chloé Goodliffe (Nancy) in The Boy Friend
Emily Langham (Fay), Annie Southall (Dulcie), Amara Okereke (Polly Browne), Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson (Maisie) and Chloé Goodliffe (Nancy) in The Boy Friend
© Manuel Harlan

"Les hommes! Les hommes!"

So despairs Tiffany Graves' French maid Hortense, as she has to deal with another romantic tryst between a series of teenage girls and their stripy-topped French lovers in a finishing school belonging to the elaborate Mme Dubonnet.

If such a thing as earnest opulence exists, then it would be the best way to describe Matthew White's production of Sandy Wilson's hit 1954 musical The Boy Friend. A '50s tribute to the roaring '20s with its vintage telephones, cocktails in a grand piano and the prospect of an extravagant evening dance, The Boy Friend is about as period as they come.

The stakes are so laughably low (will one secret millionaire hook up with another!?) – wealthy daughter Polly Browne is obsessed with finding a beau to take to the ball before stumbling upon earnest messenger Tony, who wins her heart, while perhaps hiding secrets of his own. At the same time an abundance of chipper and gung-ho classmates each engage in their own sunlit flings.

White has made a few cosmetic changes to the show here and there, but that doesn't prevent some downright awkward moments – Ade Edmondson's lechy tourist Lord Brockhurst gets "Pina Colada Song"'d by his wife as his deviant ways get blithely laughed off in a rejigged staging of "It's Never Too Late To Fall In Love".

But White tries to make everything simultaneously quaint and cartoonish, and the show ends up in an odd middle ground – you're never quite sure just how much it is asking us to take it seriously. While tongue-in-cheekily glib and oversaturated with garishly bold blues on Paul Farnsworth's backdrop (leaving no doubt over the show's Côte d'Azur setting), it isn't outlandish enough to be considered a comedy, while never carrying enough gravity to be considered a drama. Sometimes you get the feeling that it's all a bit vintage Love Island with added tap.

If the source material and Wilson's script may have a few screws loose, it doesn't stop what is a brilliant cast soaring. Amara Okereke as the lovelorn Polly Browne continues on her stratospheric career trajectory in another brilliant turn after wowing in Oklahoma! over the summer. She has the capacity to blend an impeccable voice ("Poor Little Pierrette", a duet with Janie Dee's Madame Dubonnet, being a particular highlight) with perfectly pitched comedic timing – it'll be exciting to see what she turns her hand to next.

She's supported by some superb turns – Dee revels in the role of the deadpan Dubonnet, a sultry baritone accent making her the perfect foil to Robert Portal's widower husband, while Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson and Jack Butterworth open the show with a rollicking Charleston that wows the audience.

Choreographer and associate director Bill Deamer accomplishes a tricky feat in an intimate venue like the Menier – cramming elaborate and fluid dance sequences by the dozen into the contact space, even when a hefty cast of 19 are all present on stage. Musical supervisor Simon Beck keeps things tight and bright, helped by David Cullen's new orchestrations.

It all adds up to a perfectly marvellous Christmas evening, with lashings of Riviera romance and some top tier performances to boot – all able to warm any soul with its sickly sweet cheer on a frosty winter eve. But a spellbinding central turn and moments of brilliant choreography are largely as far as it goes.