A woman is peeling carrots in an immaculate house decorated in ice-cream shades: raspberry, vanilla. An L-shaped sofa with plumped-up cushions fills one corner of the stage. A birthday party is being prepared for Grandma, who is said to be upstairs. There is mildly amusing dialogue about celeriac, burnt cakes and the wrong cutlery. Fairview’s author, Jackie Sibblies Drury, is at home with entertainingly stressful domesticity, and we are comfortable in her comfort zone (additional cosiness credit to designer Tom Scutt). We are, it seems, about to watch a tame comedy: an African American contribution to theatre’s gone-wrong dinners and birthday parties with varied menus by Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh and Shakespeare.
But the party at Fairview is different again. To say how different would be to give too much away, but do not allow yourself to be lulled by the play’s bland, suburban title. The winner of the 2019 Pulitzer prize for drama, Fairview persistently pulls the carpet out from under us. It is to drama what Claudia Rankine’s outstanding writing is to poetry. It makes us look twice, listen hard, think again. It entertains and moves and asks us, in particular, to consider who owns the commentary about race (food for thought for every white theatre critic).
Nadia Latif at no point loses her nerve, and directs with revolutionary relish and aplomb. Nicola Hughes’s superb Beverly peels carrots with the best of them. Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s Jasmine is gloriously watchable, especially when hilariously attempting to rearrange the precise alignment of her eyebrows in a mirror. Rhashan Stone charms as frisky Dayton, the boyish father, and Donna Banya’s Keisha is a steadfast and persuasive presence, a young woman on the edge of change and at the helm of a work of dazzling and disconcerting originality.
Entertainment does not come lighter than Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend (1954), with a plot as insubstantial as Twiggy, who played Polly Browne in Ken Russell’s 1971 film. This delicious pastiche of a 1920s musical is set in a finishing school on the French Riviera, and asks not much more of its audience than a willingness to yield to a dazzling display of Charlestoning (if the verb is allowable). What a strange and uplifting dance the Charleston is: niftily disciplined feet (it is wonderful to inspect these up close in the Chocolate Factory’s space) offset by wildly paddling arms. I adored watching the dancing (there is tangoing and two-stepping too). I wished the Charleston, above all, would never stop.
As bohemian headmistress Madame Dubonnet, Janie Dee is in her element: she mixes the fake and genuine and keeps you guessing – a seductive gleam in her eye. Tiffany Graves entertains as the smirking Hortense, a French maid who has seen it all and knows why it is “nicer in Nice”. Amara Okereke is an irresistibly demure Polly, her stunning voice rising above agreeably idiotic lyrics as she collides with “the boyfriend” (she looks a million dollars in her black and white Pierrette costume). And Dylan Mason’s Tony brilliantly combines gaucheness in conversation with unhesitating smoothness on the dance floor.
Jack Butterworth is a knockout as Bobby Van Husen and the other boyfriends are wonderful too: likely lads in striped T-shirts and elegantly belted trousers. Matthew White’s wholehearted production shrewdly camps up the material: the perfect young ladies (also perfect dancers) are squealing chatterboxes with hatboxes (you might say finishing school had more work to do). But no need to flap about the flappers. With lyrics such as “In the ocean you’ll find emotion”, it’s best not to overthink this adorable show – or anything else, come to that.
It is hard to imagine a more far-fetched contrast than that between The Boy Friend and The Wolf of Wall Street. One steels oneself before entering the debauched world of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, but it’s only fair to salute the Herculean feat of getting this theatrical homage launched (no wonder the press night kept being postponed). Director Alexander Wright (creator of the successful, immersive The Great Gatsby) and company are renting a property on four floors destined to become a hotel, in the City of London, in which they recreate, in multiple narratives, the obscene excesses of stockbroker and crook Jordan Belfort (played in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio).
The real Belfort, after being convicted of fraud and a spell in jail, is now a motivational writer. I don’t pretend to understand why anyone would want to give him a theatrical afterlife, but it might, I suppose, prove financially canny: the film broke box-office records, and tickets for the show start at £60, with crowds already rolling in. I had been warned the show was attracting bad audience behaviour and was not looking forward to joining the crowd. But on the night I went along, the audience were good sports – as happy to pretend to be FBI agents as to bang themselves on the chest, make wolf noises or listen tolerantly to lewd talk.
Signs asking the audience to “drink responsibly” sit incongrously alongside Belfortisms such as: “I choose rich every time”. Early on, my grown-up son and I were collared by Belfort’s father, Max (played by Andrew Macbean), who ticked us off because my son was not wearing a suit. “Did you raise him? Or did you get a nanny?”
Belfort (Oliver Tilney) and the testosterone-stoked associates of Stratton Oakmont are played with energetic courage. James Byrant’s Danny recalls his screen counterpart Jonah Hill, staggering around in underpants bristling with dollar bills. For some there is delinquent glee in observing him and Jordan freaking out on quaaludes. But for all the inventive design (I enjoyed the offices with bad art on the walls), this game of cops and robbers for grownups becomes repetitive. After almost three hours, even the enthusiasts looked less keen to invest.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Boy Friend ★★★★
The Wolf of Wall Street ★★
• Fairview is at the Young Vic, London, until 18 January 2020
• The Boy Friend is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 7 March 2020
• The Wolf of Wall Street is at 5-15 Sun Street, London, until 19 January 2020