BWW Review: SALAD DAYS, Union Theatre
Since classical times, theatre has risen to the political challenges of its day - my brother can't mention Shakespeare without giving me a lesson on his Tudor propagandism - so what role is there for a bunch of upper class twits messing about with a piano (a magic piano FFS!) with the world tilting daily in its 2017 turmoil? Can reviving what was an anachronistic slice of posh boy escapism even in the mid 1950s be justified a few hundred yards away from terror attacks of the recent past (and, one can say with a grim sense of foreboding, terror attacks to come)?
Well, yes, absolutely yes. If I could see one play every evening for the next 12 months, it would be this one. Here's why.
We meet Timothy and Jane graduating from an unnamed university (it's Cambridge, natch) and wondering what to do with their lives. From a mysterious tramp, they acquire custody of a piano that can make anyone dance whether they will it or not; they get married (secretly and do not consummate the union); and are pursued by the intelligence services. There's also a blackmail plot hatched in an Egyptian nightclub; a cast of uncles as bizarre as any host of Wodehousean aunts; and a flying saucer that presages The Rocky Horror Show, still a generation distant into the future.
I am not making this up.
The songs are wonderful, simple and touching, with a lightness that is so, so hard to write. One hears a touch of Ivor Novello and of Noel Coward, but each number is somehow uniquely Salad Days, and like the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work, the two hours of music is all killer, no filler. It would be wrong for me to name highlights, as all the numbers deserve that adjective, but "It's Easy To Sing" and "I Sit In The Sun" are just beautiful and "It's Hush Hush" could slide seamlessly into any of Gilbert and Sullivan's more satirical stabs at The Establishment.
I saw an early show in this revival and there was clearly still some work to be done on tidying up loose ends. Lowri Hamer is delightful (there must be a rule that requires the word "delightful" to appear in any review of Salad Days, so that's my compliance sorted) as Jane, singing well, her voice balanced against Elliot Styche's relaxed on-stage band. Laurie Denman looks perfect as Timothy, all wide-eyed (apparent) innocence and adolescent gaucheness, but more vocal projection is required to fill the space. Francesca Pym does a lovely turn as comic French hairdresser, Helouise, and Sophie Millett and Darrie Gardner nail the bittersweet bonding song, "We Don't Understand Our Children" with empathetic assurance.
So far, so frivolous, so where's the punch? Well, especially early on, but popping up throughout the show, the fundamental need to be true to oneself is gently, but unequivocally, asserted. Julian Slade (who wrote the music and, with Dorothy Reynolds, the book and lyrics) was the inspiration of Round The Horne's polari speaking "Julian and Sandy" and the fate of a gay man before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales 50 years ago last month, is woven into the story's warp and weft. There's the lavender-scented marriage, the ludicrous snooping hypocritical Minister of Pleasure and Pastime and the fear of the exotic, be they Soho faux Egyptians or silvery aliens. But Timothy, despite a chaste kiss or two from Jane, stays true to his closeted self, his escape to another planet surely a metaphor for coming out.
The other theme, so gently massaged into the narrative that its power is barely noticed, is optimism. In a world in which fear is stoked up by the media, by politicians and by horrific events, musical theatre often provides a bulwark of hope to resist the cynicism of the doom-mongers (watch a episode of the execrable Jeremy Kyle Show one morning and follow it up with an hour of Encore Radio, to see what I mean).
In "We Said We Would Never Look Back", Timothy and Jane acknowledge their er... salad days at Cambridge and look out towards a world still recovering from war, rationing still in force, and resolve to make the most of it. Privileged they may be, but each faces a future planned for them by family and underpinned by a stifling culture of upper-middle class expectation that has squashed the spirits of their parents' generation and aspires to do the same to them. It doesn't because they refuse to fit in, find fellow rebels and counter-cultural figures and, in something that ever so softly anticipates the well-to-do hippies of the 1960s communes, make their own way in life. This is Marlon Brando's (contemporaneous) Wild One with a smile and not a snarl - the seeds of the extraordinary transformation that saw a Tory-led government introduce marriage-equality in what may be the only lasting achievement of David Cameron's tenure as Prime Minister.
Of course, you don't have to think about the tides of history when sitting in the stalls - you can just enjoy one of the most enjoyable shows ever written, but one with much more going on below the surface than immediately meets one's eye.
Photo Scott Rylander.