Book: Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade
Lyrics: Julian Slade
Director: Bryan Hodgson
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Originally written in 1952 as a fun summer musical for Bristol Old Vic’s resident theatre company, Salad Days evokes a gentler, simpler age, while also incorporating English eccentricity both in its characters and its own plot.
Upon graduating from university, friends Timothy (Laurie Denman) and Jane (Lowri Hamer) meet up and decide to rebel against the plans their respective mothers have put in place for them. Jane’s mother wants her to marry someone wealthy; Timothy’s, to find him employment through one of his several influential uncles. And so, to protect against plans of marriage and employment, Jane and Timothy marry each other in secret and get a job guarding a piano in a park.
The attraction between the leads is obvious from the start, both from the book and two vibrant performances from Denman and Hamer. But it is when the miniature piano they are guarding is revealed as being a magical instrument that compels everyone around it to dance that their relationship, and the show, takes off.
Joanne McShane’s choreography is strongest in the ensemble numbers as the piano works its charms. The lightness of the Charleston style dances is of a style that would have been retro even for the show’s original production 65 years ago, but it suits Reynolds and Slade’s script perfectly. For the first act, Salad Days is an evocation of a jolly-hockey-sticks style of English life, of cream tea picnics and Pimm’s, that is a light and airy relief to the pressures of the modern day.
During the first act, Jacob Seickell’s expressive mime Troppo gives the romantic leads some fine support, as do Tom Norman and Stephen Patrick as the policemen eager to track down the owners of the magical mobile piano. But while there are some interesting musical diversions in Act I – including an amusing look at government secrecy in the delightful ‘Hush, Hush’ – the focus is on the relationship between Jane and Timothy, the archetype of the friends not realising they are in love with each other being portrayed to a charming degree.
Such plot as there is kicks off in the second act, starting off with a visit to a nightclub themed after ancient Egypt. Emma Lloyd’s bored backup dancer and Maeve Byrne’s over-the-top headline act provide laughs as well as great performances.
The story, such as it is, takes a turn for the worse when the piano goes missing, and Jane and Timothy take a trip in a flying saucer to try and locate it. And while the introduction of sci-fi elements is utterly bizarre in a musical which otherwise is more stylistically of the era of Waugh and Forster, everything is just so Englishly eccentrically good-natured that everyone takes it in their stride.
In truth, the flying saucer “effects”, such as they are, are the weakest part of the production’s design, which otherwise is as summery as a theatre in a sweltering brick railway arch can be. Jack Weir’s lighting designs complement Catherine Morgan’s set design to lend a sense of the outdoor. The decision to offer audience ‘picnic seats’ on the edges of the green stage further lends a sense of relaxed informality that allows one to fully enjoy a slice of the best form of musical nonsense.
It may lurch about from set piece to set piece a bit, and at times have all the subtlety of a children’s production that does not give its audience enough credit, but Salad Days as a musical is powered by infectious joy. And that is a resource this revival at the Union has to spare.
Runs until 9 September 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander