Review: The ToyBoy Diaries at Hope Mill Theatre

Pic Anthony Robling
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The Hope Mill has quickly become a destination to showcase new talent and it’s been wonderful to see Manchester become the starting point for productions which have become so successful they have transferred to London after being staged at this beautiful New Islington venue.

The ToyBoy Diaries is another brave venture being premiered in Manchester. It focuses on a middle-aged woman who is unapologetic about the decisions she has made in life. She does not see the need for the labels but, the simple fact is, she has a penchant for younger men.

You may be thinking, so what? But, if you look at mainstream television, you often see younger women paired up with older male presenters. Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield for example. But how would producers react if Joanna Lumley was paired up with a younger male host?

Pic Anthony Robling

Netflix has the wonderful Grace and Frankie, and I was hoping that The ToyBoy Diaries, a  sometimes funny look at female sexuality and the conflict between love and sex, would be as refreshing as Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin’s turns in that highly original TV show.

During much of the first act, the protagonist’s quest for a man and her reflections on some of her crazy adventures, are close to the bone and very funny.

Johanne Murdock presents Lily as a woman who does not want it all. She just wants to have fun and make her own choices. This excellent actress reels you into the narrative and is very commanding and believable, has energy to burn, and totally connects with the audience.

Nicola Blackman is also great as next door neighbour, Penny. But sadly, the character herself belongs in Fresh Fields, or another long gone sit-com, always knocking the door at the wrong moment, passing on words of wisdom and caustic one liners, but she never feels rooted in any sense of reality.

Twenty years ago, the then shocking image of Sex and the City’s Samantha trying out vibrators, dressing up for sex, trying out different positions with men and women of various ages, was beamed into our living rooms.

So even though this show has valid points to make about being a middle-aged woman, and how society expects you to be, it all feels a bit dated. And it’s not as daring as it thinks it is. The scene in which the ToyBoys parade around in a fantasy sequence with towels covering their posteriors, only to flash at the end, is just too coy.

Pic Anthony Robling

Talking of the ToyBoys, the three guys acquit themselves very well, with Alistair Higgins giving a terrific performance playing many of Lily’s conquests with a knowing glint in his eye. Matt Beveridge manages to keep a straight face, even during an embarrassing and overlong bondage sequence. And Sharif Afifi brings far more to his many roles than is on the page.

The show is based on the best-selling memoirs of Wendy Salisbury. Having her involved in this production is great for publicity, but does lead to an overlong running time. Carole King’s story in the wonderful musical Beautiful takes less time to unfold than this, but is far more interesting, rich and empowering.

Director Tania Azevedo has some neat touches, including the fact that she invites lead Johanne Murdock to talk directly to the audience. But, the word ‘cut’ should be uttered at some point as this musical is way too long. Funny for the first half, with some nice observations and an always watchable Murdock.

But, despite some hummable tunes by Andy Collyer, the narrative goes around and around, stopping and starting, like a vibrator, running out of batteries.

The Toyboy Diaries is at the Hope Mill Theatre until 10 February.

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