Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The ToyBoy Diaries

Wendy Salisbury adapted by Simon Warne (book) and Andy Collyer (music and lyrics)
Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment and Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
18 February 2018 to 10 March 2018

The cheerful cartoon-style poster for The ToyBoy Diaries raises expectations of a bawdier version of Bridget Jones or Shirley Valentine but with songs. This turns out not to be the case.

Lily (Johanne Murdock), 43 years old, twice-divorced and with her children now married, stumbles into a relationship with a younger man. After the affair fizzles out Lily finds herself consciously seeking partners who are younger than her and begins to record her experiences in a dairy. When Lily’s personal ad (under the pseudonym ‘Mrs Robinson’) seeking younger men generates 69 responses she feels obliged to respond.

Lily is a well-drawn character. Johanne Murdock gives Lily an appraising restless quality along with a dry acerbic wit. The tricky issue of whether Lily could be considered a sexual predator is addressed discreetly – although Lily refers to her conquests as ‘ToyBoys’ they are not actual youngsters just younger than her. Lily dismisses mockingly the only actual teenager she encounters.

Yet it is hard to be sure what Lily wants from her relationships. Although she seems hurt by those partners interested only in a one-night stand she does not seem to want a long-term relationship herself. There is also the nagging sense of class-consciousness: that if Lily was from a working class background, rather than extremely well-spoken, her adventures might not be regarded with such amused tolerance by her community.

Most of the characterisation seems to have been absorbed by Lily so there is little left over for other members of the cast. A boisterous Nicola Blackman both defines Penny, and nudges her towards the categorisation of cliché, by saying that everyone needs a ‘best friend’. The ToyBoys themselves are inevitably playing ‘types’ rather than real people but do so with great style. Matt Beveridge, Sharif Afifi and  Alistair Higgins seem to be enjoying themselves just as much as the audience as they portray barrel-chested lecherous older men , a submissive seeking a scolding or an unusually well-endowed chap.

Rather than turn The ToyBoy Diaries into a musical comedy director Tania Azevdeo opts for a subdued reflective romance. The score, by Andy Collyer, is heavily reliant on melancholy piano and reeds which does provide a backing for bittersweet reflection. But the approach is not entirely successful; as well as the already mentioned ambivalence about what Lily actually wants the source material - Wendy Salisbury’s autobiographical books - were in the form of diaries which creates an episodic format.

There is a sense of trying very hard to please everyone. Every so often, during the slowly paced first Act, there is an effort to spice things up. A broad comedy sequence gives lessons on seduction using food and there is a tribute to the joys of the vibrator. Simon Warne’s script isn’t as witty as one might hope- invited to take part in ‘Save the Children’ Lily reflects that is just what she is doing.

The ToyBoy Diaries is a quality production. Jason Denvir’s set, complete with opaque walls that become see-through, is imaginative and the costumes – especially for Murdock and Blackman - are ravishing. The cast are enthusiastic and can actually sing but the disjointed and crowded nature of the musical does make you wonder whether a more streamlined version might have hit the right note.

Reviewer: David Cunningham


Comment by David Chadderton

I think David has got it spot on here. A 90-minute version of this collection of anecdotes and bawdy interludes could be quite entertaining without outstaying it welcome; at 2 hours 40 it certainly would help to have a clear storyline of some kind to pull the audience through it.

Even when there are signs of a plot, it isn't developed and quickly abandoned. The first toyboy (although we are told later on in a flashback that he wasn't the first) is introduced with a story of a growing relationship, then suddenly we jump 7 years and he is leaving with his things in a cardboard box. This is just two events on a timeline with no context or explanation; the story is the missing part in-between.

The songs are pleasant enough but very Sondheim-esque, especially in his Company and Into the Woods style. The script is sometimes funny, but there are also a lot of predictable, crude, very old jokes and attempts at witty wordplay that don't even make sense. Apart from the central character, played excellently by Murdock, none of the other characters comes across as anything more than a plot device.

Hope Mill and Aria have once again thrown everything at this in a production that oozes quality, but they are working with material that needs a lot more work to make it into a finished product.

Comment by Alan Hulme

I think the Davids are being very over-kind here. I'd give it a two at the most.

It's certainly a pity the director hasn't insisted on extensive cuts, pruning it by at least an hour would improve it greatly. As it is, there's just far, far, too much of everything except inspiration. Including reprises there are two dozen or so musical numbers listed in the programme, overload with a vengeance.

Pruned and polished it might have the makings of a pleasantly amusing, if not greatly original, little entertainment but there's nothing at all about the very current state of sexual politics as it's based on material from around 10 years ago and is consequently very dated in its basic premises, recent events have overtaken and swamped it.