There was a time when no-one would take ‘Salad Days’ seriously: ‘Monty Python’ famously parodied it with an irreverent admixture of Sam Peckinpah, turning its delicate world of English midsummer whimsy into a limb-severing bloodbath. I am glad to say that, since that awful nadir, the show has climbed back into the sincere affections of Brit folk. Seven years ago, Tete-a-Tete Opera revived it will full vocal honours in a production at the now defunct Riverside Studios and won over a whole new audience for this Festival of Britain era, candy-striped, simple if rather arch tale of the post-war jeunesse doree. And now, in a masterful production by Bryan Hodgson, adding another magnificent feather to his cap, we get a lushly furnished panorama of pre-Suez Crisis Britain, where the old values of hierarchy and imperial certainty have not yet come into contact with the forces that would unseat them. In a sense, as today we teeter yet again on the brink of some almighty change, its revival could not be more timely.
Catherine Morgan has transformed the wide open space of the theatre into a splendidly generous sweep of lawn, upon which the dotty parade of English society marches back and forth; the front row of the seating is even a line of picnic cushions (bring your own hamper!). But it is perhaps to costumier Mike Lees (with The Attic Costume Collective by his side) that this production owes most of its visual success: he has ransacked his copious treasure-trove of vestments to clad these denizens of a by-gone age with a stunningly well balanced collection of hues, fabrics and accessories – and, oh yes, wigs! – all chosen with pin-point accuracy, making this fringe show look every bit a top-class big scale musical: when the stage is abuzz with all 14 of the cast, it fairly bristles with an often astonishingly high level of Fifties glamour, making it far and away the most spectacular production we have seen at this address in a long time. Jack Weir is on hand to ensure that it is all lit to wonderful effect, with some bulls-eye special effects thrown in for good measure.
This is a young person’s world, and the pleasing roster of newcomers and recent arrivals to the profession are clearly having a ball with this opulent festivity of a show. The romantic leads, perky Lowri Hamer and gawky Laurie Denman are appealing; and around them are clustered a generous half dozen or so chums, relatives, lovers played with zest by the deliciously pertinent Francesca Pim, sprightly Ashlee Young, feisty Emma Lloyd, wistful James Gulliford, patrician Lewis McBean, and in the role of ‘the fifth Marx Brother’, Jacob Seickell’s ingenious solution to the mute role of Troppo.
Pitted against the urgency of youth are the ranks of grown-ups. In the disapproving and mutually hostile mothers of the lead couple, Darrie Gardner and Sophie Millett, we get a font of just enough complication to keep the slender plot from vanishing away entirely in front of our eyes. Meanwhile, Karl Moffat takes on an Alec-Guinness-like suite of multiple interfering relatives, which brings some more welcome humour. The best scene, though, for my money, is the bright-as-a-button variety sketch of two policemen trying to get to grips with the nonsense: played by Tom Norman and the ever-useful Stephen Patrick, it is as good as the best of Will Hay, and reminds us strongly of Ronnie Barker’s punning skits. This moment is a total success and points towards the kind of show the rest of the production may mature into.
1950s Light Comedy is not a genre really ‘taught’ at drama schools these days, and it requires quite a complex skills set to get it right: this company boldly tackles all the challenges it poses, investing their performances with copious energy. This works to best advantage in the splendid choreography of Joanne McShane, which is alive to every nuance of period dance forms referenced by the score, and her staging of the numerous ensembles is admirable, ranging from the frankly expositional opener ‘All The Things That Are Done By A Don’, to the almost dionysian raptures of the big dance breaks. However, while the trio of piano, drums and double-bass sounds perfectly apt accompanying these numbers, under the musical direction of Elliot Styche, it could very easily benefit from a greater feeling of elasticity and variety in pace, attack, density of the arrangements, allowing for more depth and light and shadow in the quieter vocal numbers: for instance, ‘I Sit In The Sun’ hurtles past as if it is trying to catch a train, whereas it is really an oasis of sensuous langour and serene calm before the onset of the main action. As it is, the cast often have a hard job of making us believe in the romance of the piece.
And what of the ‘story’? The motor of the cheerful kids being paid – handsomely – by Tom Self’s mysteriously affluent Tramp to ‘look after’ a piano (which turns out to possess magical powers), is a kind of a Titfield Thunderbolt of a trope that threads a line, like the bunting stretched aloft, between the immense range of characters and incident. In and of itself, the piano is not the most important focus of the tale, but it charts the route we must take through this light comedy, lending the picaresque elements some kind of cohesion. Yet, its digressions are many and delightful: the clarion-voiced Maeve Byrne serves up two of the most grandiose in her Cleopatra (dressed with breath-taking lavishness) and – pointing in an entirely new direction – her extra-terrestrial Electrode, looking for all the world as if she just stepped out of ‘Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens’, and anticipating the revolutions waiting to hit this complacent, somnolent society.
Still, it’s a terrific way to enjoy the summer and after its run in Southwark, it will be touring to the Theatre Royal Bath, upon whose main stage its glories will make even more of an impact. Three cheers for these Salad Days!
Until 9 September 2017