Above: Photo - Mark Senior
I was pleased to be invited to the touring production of Salad Days, having enjoyed it so much at a hot summer’s evening at the Union Theatre last year. It’s essentially the same production although mostly recast, and still provides a gloriously silly if tuneful experience. Richmond Theatre was almost full for press night with an audience which seemed to be composed of a fair smattering of those who, like me, saw this 1954 show long ago as well as a number of young patrons who seemed bemused at the thought of a musical about a magic piano and a flying saucer…
It was the exuberant choreography from Joanne McShane which impressed me so much at the Union Theatre and the cast of 15 can deliver it much more effectively on the larger stages to be visited on this short tour. From the crisp moves in the strong opening number The Things that are Done by a Don to the more wistful and lyrical We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back, the choreography in this production is a joy to behold. Oh Look at Me, I’m Dancing is staged so that we almost do believe that the moves we are seeing are involuntary – mostly because of the commitment of the cast and the belief of all involved in the production.
This willingness to take such flimsy material seriously is the saving grace of Bryan Hodgson’s production. It would have been so easy to send it all up with an excess of campery and mugging, but this is avoided even with the excesses of characters like the fashion designer Ambrose (well, more or less).
At the centre of the piece are two young couples. Stepping up to the role of Timothy, Lewis McBean is an endearingly vulnerable lead opposite Jessica Croll’s strong performance as Jane, with something of a young Joyce Grenfell about her. They sing and dance absolutely in the style of the period and carry much of the story – such as it is. The second couple are Nigel and Fiona, with the excellent James Gulliford still playing the former opposite Francesca Pim whose energy seems boundless.
Around these four swirl a cast of characters – or caricatures in some cases – many of them supposed Uncles of Timothy. As Lady Raeburn, Wendi Peters shows her versatility and considerable musical theatre expertise, as well as contributing a brief cameo as Aunt Prue. Although she is the “name” in the cast, it is to her credit that she is also very much an ensemble player here, and it is good to see a mix of new young performers working alongside others with considerable experience.
Among that ensemble it is impossible not to notice Maeve Bynne, and her second act opening number as Asphynxia is still a highlight of the evening, seizing the number by the throat and getting every ounce of entertainment out of it. As PC Boot, Nathan Elwick has a talent for eccentric dancing that brings to mind the great Nat Jackley, and Callum Evans even manages to make Troppo – often insufferably twee – almost believable, and he is an impressively acrobatic dancer.
The set, so effective on the small Union stage, looks far too basic on a larger stage however. A single bandstand and a slightly wrinkled cyclorama with constantly changing colour washes are not really enough for a piece like this, and the park in which it is set seems to consist of a few wisps of ivy. The placing of the three musicians across the full width of the stage also has the unfortunate effect of making it look like a concert version of the show, and the sound, particularly in the ensemble numbers, was often distorted although it improved after the interval. And please, proof-read programmes: the most well-known number is listed as We’re Look for a Piano and in the costume credits, that’s not how you spell academic…
Despite these issues – although the set design is a difficult hurdle for the cast to surmount – this is still a very successful revival of an important piece of musical theatre history. As I said in my 2017 review for Sardines, “the tunes are good, the cast are at the top of their game, the excellent choreography is fun and it’s a very pleasant way to spend an evening.”
Below: Photo - Mark Senior