When, in the mid-1980s, I picked the cheaply produced black-and-white printed original cast album of Boy Meets Boy out of a bargain bin in Tower Records, it instantly became a favourite show I’d never seen produced.  A pastiche of every black-and-white Astaire/Rogers backstage musical with endlessly hummable, witty and clever songs, but destined not to see much stage time after its initial run. A sort of gay Mack and Mabel if you like.

Although it ran nearly two years off-Broadway, it ended the career of practically everyone associated with it: according to the Lortel archives of New York productions, none of the actors went on to do anything else notable, and neither composer-lyricist Bill Solly nor book writer Donald Ward built on it significantly enough to earn either of them a Wikipedia entry.

In the annals of gay theatre, it’s a contemporary of Terrence McNally’s more blatant farce The Ritz, set in a gay bathhouse, which won Rita Moreno a Tony award as the air-headed torch singer Googie Gomez and became a cult movie. Apart from amateur and provincial productions in the States, this debut at Jermyn Street is your first chance to see the finer and gentler Boy Meets Boy. You should seize it.

The plot is simply defined in the opening lyric: “Boy meets boy, boy loses boy, but boy gets boy in the end”. Without a frisson of double-entendre, this is the whole of the story – a simple romance in which a sardonic American foreign correspondent arrives in London to cover the affair of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, throws a bender of a party (again, no pun intended) and sleeps through the abdication. In search of an alternate story to save his job, he pursues instead the society scandal of wealthy American socialite Clarence Cutler, jilted at the altar by his titled British male bride Guy Rose. Casey O’Brien, the journo, falls in love with the “English Rose”, and two hours later, via the Dorchester, Victoria Station and a Parisian cabaret, the charismatic and penniless have triumphed over the rich and charmless, and love conquers all.

There are two ways to play this sort of pastiche: broadly and ironically, with tongue firmly in cheek, or, as here, with as much sincerity as the excellent cast can muster. There are some lulls in the second act, but Gene David Kirk’s sparkling production is a graceful swan song to his tenure at Jermyn Street.

As the central romantics, Stephen Ashfield and Craig Fletcher are alarmingly credible, Ashfield particularly singing with an unforced tenderness and simplicity which is perfect for this intimate space. Both have fine comic timing: Fletcher is obliged to make the classic transformation from bespectacled frump to confident beauty normally demanded of Ruby Keeler or Shirley MacLaine, and with just the smoothing of his hair and removal of his glasses seems to sing himself into his bold new persona.

They are ably supported by an excellent ensemble, impersonating everything from tap-dancing bellboys and boy scouts to Parisian showgirls in Lee Proud’s smartly inventive and stage-filling choreography. There are also a couple of sharply observed characterisations, such as Ben Kavanagh as the jilted groom Clarence, and a storming soubrette routine by Anna Nicholas as Guy’s louche aunt, Josephine La Rose. Alice Walkling’s set design gives the production Art Deco style and rare solidity for the fringe, as it transforms into eighteen distinct scenes with panache.

The curiosity of Boy Meets Boy is that, whilst it’s undeniably a “gay romance”, there’s no polemic: the situation whereby men marry men is presented as a fact of life without moral or political discussion, although women don’t seem to be included in the deal. At a time when gay marriage is high on the news agenda, it seems surreal, but also completely beguiling, that in 1975 Solly and Ward should have anticipated it so delightfully.

Date reviewed: Friday 30th November 2012
Image © Jermyn Street Theatre

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.