11:02 AM 10th November 2018
The Spa’s Salad Days
Outside it was blowing a veritable gale but the Bridlington Spa auditorium was all sweetness and light enjoying its Salad Days.
Now let’s immediately dismiss those absurd counter-critics who immediately dismiss this sparkling musical comedy as immediately absurd. There’s a few about who will tell you the plot is silly. Well, yes it is. It’s supposed to be. That is its point. Or for ‘silly’ better read ‘whimsically diverting’.
A young couple, Tim and Jane, who are not in love (and heaven forefend that they should know anything of modernistic naughty romps) decide to get married in secret. It’s not clear why, something to do with thwarting parental control.
Jessica Croll, as lovely to look at as her Julie Andrews’ voice is a pleasure to hear, and the tall, imposing Mark Anderson, the possessor of a pleasing light baritone, make a wonderful pair, fleet of foot and engaging - if not bothering with the long process of engagement.
They soon find themselves accosted by a tramp (musical director Dan Smith, taking time away from his keyboard), who puts them in charge of a magical piano, which casts a spell on all who hear it, making everybody dance in a wonky free-spirited sort of way, liberating their inner selves, escaping their boring lives. This causes a public sensation and is being investigated by the Police (Nathan Elwick does a great comic turn as Constable Boot), who draw a blank when the piano, temporarily in the charge of a mute, Troppo the Clown, disappears. (Callum Evans gives a masterclass in physical non-verbal acting in the role.) Fortunately, a flying saucer is on hand to help track down the magical keyboard.
Yes, thus boiled down, it’s absurd, but no more so than, say, the goings-on of the ghost of Christmas past or Mary Poppins’s buoyant brolly, and certainly a lot more fun than watching Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon hanging around incoherently waiting for Godot. The point is it was considered great stuff in its day and ran and ran, went down a storm in America and was endlessly revived.
Now television for the masses was not around in 1954 when Salad Days burst into the limelight and placed a Shakespearean phrase for innocence in the public consciousness, so we can’t look to the small screen for what people enjoyed, laughed at, enthused over. But radio was and anybody who can remember the ‘variety’ programmes of the period, a series of charmingly daft sketches, with musical interludes, will see that this musical is all of a piece with them. It was written in haste, in a month in 1954, when the Old Vic’s artistic director Denis Carey engaged Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds to throw together a summer show, lock, stock and barrel.
What they came up with should now be seen as a delicious slice of 1950’s light entertainment, reflecting the things of the time. Dan Dare, the ‘pilot of the future’ launched flying saucers in this country in 1950, in the comic Eagle, and three years later the BBC had The Quatermass Experiment, introducing Sci Fi to a young audience. You might say flying saucers were in the air. Crazy People, later famously re-titled The Goon Show, began broadcasting in 1951, and its plots featured deliberately absurd contrivances of a magical kind. Speaking of the latter, Sparky’s Magical Piano, a keyboard with the power to talk and bring about wonderful behaviour in inanimate objects no less than people, was hugely popular from the late 1940s onwards. Early television actually featured a Bozo, the Clown, surely the inspiration for Troppo.
The point I am labouring to make is that Salad Days really is both of its time and actually a gentle satire of its time - when aristocratic parents made arrangements with influential uncles for their children’s marriages and careers. The audience, who had recently come through the horrors of a world war, would find it amusingly topical and lightly diverting rather than silly that a spaceship should land. Even, the age-old practice of boy meeting girl, falling in love, culminating naturally with marriage is subverted with Timothy and Jane (lovely period names now back in fashion) choosing to get wed first and then fall in love as an afterthought. And the other old staple of the couple who don’t want to get married being pressurised to do so is also sent up. The whole thing’s a send-up! Get it! Yes I’m talking about you, fellow critic, who breathed the words ‘dusty and risible period piece’.
This Regan de Wynter production, with a huge cast directed by Bryan Hodgson, opened at the Union Theatre in London in September and is now at its penultimate venue before ending the tour next week in Guildford. It is a show that deserves to run and run, a sparkling effervescent laugh-a-minute all-singing, all-dancing tonic. It has some marvellously adroit set pieces, not least with Wendi Peters, as Lady Raeburn, under a hairdryer, speaking on two phones simultaneously. Those who know this splendid character actress only as Cilla Battersby-Brown, her role in Coronation Street, may be surprised by the power and range of her singing voice and her impeccable comic timing. Maeve Byrne does a rich turn as Asphynxia, the sultry nightclub artiste who takes your breath away.
Choreographer Joanne McShane, as is generally the case with shows of this kind, is one of the greatest stars, the one whose work is almost taken for granted, only observed in other’s performances. She deserves high credit for her knowledge of the period. It would not have done to bring in Chicago legginess or any suggestion of dirty dancing into what is essentially a very British musical from the early 1950s, before the great cultural schism began to divide the generations. We’re happy to be bewitched by the frou-frou of layered petticoats to the accompaniment of foot-tapping tunes – the salad days of youthful inexperience.
Salad Days is at the Bridlington Spa from 6th to the 10th of November.