The Royal Alexandra Theatre, built a century ago as a faithful colonial reproduction of a typical London theatre of its time, is currently hosting a revival of The Boy Friend, itself written a half-century ago as a loving tribute to a just-then dying tradition of British musical comedy.
Adding to this series of historical connections, the director of the present production is none other than Julie Andrews, a living icon of the musical stage, who took the female ingénue role in the original West End production 50 years ago.
The Boy Friend was a smash hit in London in the dreary years after the end of World War II. It delighted an audience which, like its author, had grown up loving the stylish amateurishness of pre-war British musical theatre. Author/ composer Sandy Wilson (similar to many other fey young men of his time in his adoration of Ivor Novello’s musicals and Ronald Firbank’s lavender novels) began his career as a writer of material for smart society revues, then hit the jackpot with this charming and ever-so slightly subversive pastiche. A record-breaking West End run was accompanied by success on Broadway, then by regular revivals over the years.
The Boy Friend was intended as an affectionate memorial tribute to the last days of a style of theatre — and to the social conventions which supported and reinforced that very same thea-trical world.
That it is getting a revival now is presumably because of Dame Julie’s personal regard for the show that started her career. But the more difficult question is whether it deserves a revival. If so, then it should be on account of Wilson’s score which contains a number of songs that still retain their appeal; the most successful and best known are “I Could Be Happy With You,” “A Room In Bloomsbury,” “It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love” and “The Boy Friend.”
Despite Andrew’s credentials and enthusiasm, this production fails to take its audience much further than the admittedly superb professional capabilities of a well-run US road show can take us. The audience is treated to respectful treatments of Wilson’s songs, highly enthusiastic and energetic choreography (by John DeLuca), a group of well-rehearsed and talented principal players, colourful sets and almost perfect costume designs (by Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winner Tony Walton). In particular, the two romantic leads, Jessica Grové and Sean Palmer, shine out with their impressively outsized stage personalities.
Despite all the muscular professionalism and terrific stage efficiencies — or perhaps because of them — this production only gives us a very general representation of the very specific style of musical comedy that The Boy Friend represents and of the spirit of its gentle, self-deprecating humour. Sadly, it gives us little help in entering the imaginary world of this piece of theatrical history.