Wednesday 2 January 2013

Theatre review: Salad Days

Other theatrical bloggers and tweeters have raved about its past runs at Riverside Studios, so I decided to check out Bill Bankes-Jones' production of Salad Days, back by popular demand (although tonight a bit quiet, the post-New Year lull meaning only about a half-full house.) 1950s musicals aren't high on my must-see lists, but this one proved to be worth making an exception for as it turns out to operate on a level of silliness that manages to stay the right side of twee, while occasionally veering into outright insanity. As we enter, it's the graduation ceremony at Oxford University, 1954, and the audience are handed diplomas congratulating us on passing our degrees - which, it turns out, have included a module on Suspension of Disbelief which will prove handy. Graduates Jane (Katie Moore) and Timothy (usually played by Leo Miles) are now faced with the problem of returning to their families: Her mother has lined up a number of eligible suitors to marry her off to; his wants him to take a job with one of his many uncles. A husband for her and something to keep him busy would give them the excuse to keep their independence.

So the two get married, figuring they might fall in love afterwards (of course, they're both secretly already quite smitten) and as for a job they accept a tramp's (Matthew Hawksworth) offer to look after his antique piano for a month, and busk with it in London's parks. But "Minnie" turns out to be a magic piano (pronounced, in true 1950s movie style, "piaaarno,") and everyone who hears her music is compelled to dance.

I frequently grumble about the plots of musicals, but Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds' story keeps things simple and silly: As the magic piano becomes a sensation, one of Tim's powerful uncles, the Minister for Pleasure and Pastimes, and not particularly fond of either (Tony Timberlake,) engages amiable PC Boot (cute Tom Millen) to track down the pair and put an end to the fun. Our heroes, together with their friends Nigel and Fiona (Luke Alexander and Ellie Robertson) hatch a plan to foil him. And then, halfway through the second act, the story takes a further, completely insane turn into fantasy as another of Tim's uncles, Zed (Mark Inscoe) has a hilariously unexpected deus ex machina at his disposal.

With so many musicals over-amplified, it's always nice to see one that's not miked up at all, and in Tim Meacock's traverse design in Studio 2 it's a comparatively ambitious space to trust to the cast's vocal power alone. It mostly pays off, with Moore not just a massively endearing leading lady but also in fine voice throughout. But Nicholas Collier, tonight understudying the role of Timothy, had more trouble filling the room, and was completely inaudible over the music any time he turned his back to us. Alexander, not quite as problematic, also had occasional issues with clarity.

Mostly, though, the sound levels are good, and although not quite a parade of classics, the songs are pretty good foot-tappers - the frequently-reprised "Oh Look At Me, I'm Dancing" and "It's Easy To Sing" are likely to come along with you into the night. But this is a story about people being magically compelled to dance, so it's appropriately the dancing that's the bigger highlight, Quinny Sacks' choreography being impressively performed by the cast who bring the sense of bodies out of control as they go into increasingly elaborate moves. And it's not only the characters who might find themselves dancing unexpectedly - audience members in the premium table seats at the front, or even on the aisles, should expect to join in.

There's a lot of fun and silliness: A highlight for me was the Act II opening scene in an Egyptian-themed club, a nice mix of attempted exotica mixed with very English banalities - mysterious singer Asphynxia's (Kathryn Martin) attempt to be sexy with fried egg and chips is brilliantly funny. Perhaps it was the low audience turnout that meant there weren't a huge amount of big laughs tonight; but Salad Days kept a big grin on my face almost throughout, and unless you're a massive grinch by the time it gets to that scene in the second act you just have to sit back and accept the show's going to take you wherever the hell it feels like going, and enjoy the ride.

Salad Days by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds is booking until the 2nd of March at Riverside Studio 2.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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