SALAD Days, by Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade, is one of those shows that can hardly fail to delight.
Written in the early 1950s as a summer musical for the Bristol Old Vic, the show has enchanted audiences for over sixty years. Indeed, not only does word have it that it was this show more than any other that inspired a seven-year-old Cameron Mackintosh to fall in love with the theatre, but the programme notes even suggest that Salad Days is most likely the Queen’s favourite musical! Whatever the case, this wonderfully absurd and undemanding tale of young love, pushy parents, a magic piano and a flying saucer is the ideal entertainment for an autumn evening in Salisbury. Daft it may be, maybe just a bit too daft in Act II and, it should be said, with a sadly underwhelming spaceship, it nevertheless does provide something which, to quote director Bryan Hodgson, is always welcome in counteracting the sometimes overwhelming seriousness of today.
Having enjoyed the company’s award-winning Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore (I sadly missed their Mikado, which friends tell me was probably the best of the lot) I was looking forward to this most English of musicals with no little enthusiasm and I was not disappointed. There was a lovely old-fashioned innocence about the whole show which struck just the right chord with last night’s capacity audience, and it was clear from the outset that this was going to be a production of considerable style. With a simple but elegant set, constant attention to the stage picture – it was always bursting with life and colour, just the right degree of exaggeration in the various characterisations and, above all, with some loving attention to detail, Hodgson gave us all a great night out.
Although Wendi Peters was the big star, this was in name only – the production was a true ensemble piece and there wasn’t a weak link. In her roles as both Lady Raeburn and Aunt Prue, mother and aunt of the show’s central characters, Jane and Timothy respectively, Peters’ skill as a character actress was evident. Her facial expressions were just glorious and, as Lady Raeburn, her take on Hyacinth Bucket never failed to amuse.
Jessica Croll as Jane and Mark Anderson as Timothy, the young lovers, gave similarly accomplished performances. From the innocent shyness of their opening duet (which had us all smiling and chuckling) onwards, the couple gave us some lovely moments.
Joanne McShane’s animated and imaginative choreography, both here and elsewhere, was undoubtedly one of the many strengths of this production allowing the cast to show their dancing skills yet always remain in character. Although, by and large, it was when the whole company were onstage doing just this that the show was at its liveliest, as with the overall direction, it was the delightful little touches that I think really distinguished this production – I am thinking here of such things as the tangible happiness we surely all shared with Nigel (James Gulliford) during It’s Easy to Sing or for the bewilderment of the hapless priest we sensed in Oh Look at Me I’m Dancing.
Of the many other notable performances, and it was a large cast so singling out a few individuals is far from easy, Francesca Pim’s comic delivery as Fiona, was always perfect. I particularly enjoyed Nathan Elwick’s PC Boot too. His scenes with Megan Armstrong (Rowena) and Jay Worthy (Inspector) were absolute gems and all too short. There was just a hint of corpsing in this latter scene; whether genuine or staged I have no idea, but no matter, we loved it. Callum Evans was also utterly mesmerising as the genial Troppo – facial expressions and body language were spot on and for sheer physicality he could hardly have been bettered. Maeve Bynne was similarly a joy in her cameo role as cabaret artiste Asphynxia, a performance which reminded me so much of recordings I heard as a child of the late Beatrice Lilley. Her hat slipping down at the end of Sand in My Eyes was one of the funniest things I’ve seen for a long while and kept me laughing for a good while after.
If some of the writing lacks the wit and sparkle of Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde, and some of the dialogue in Act II does tend to drag a bit, there are, by and large, enough sunny musical numbers to keep the show rolling along, and so full marks to Dan Smith in his dual roles as the Tramp and Musical Director. His three piece band, on stage throughout and as such very much part of the show, played with considerable gusto.
Salad Days runs at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 27th October before moving to the Northcott in Exeter the following week.