Sunday, 12 October 2014

Theatre review: Free As Air

Bonkers 1954 musical Salad Days was a hit when revived at Riverside Studios a couple of years ago, which makes it not quite obscure enough to fit the Finborough's "lost classics" strand. So instead, to mark that show's 50th anniversary, they're reviving Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds' 1957 follow-up, Free As Air. The fictional Channel Island of Terhu is preparing to celebrate its annual Independence Day, but is struggling to find a May Queen because their laws stipulate nobody can fill the role twice, and every woman and girl on the island has already had a turn. So when a stranger, Geraldine (Charlotte Baptie) is picked up by the supply boat, she not only solves this thorny problem, but steals the heart of the heir to the island, Albert (Daniel Cane.) But Geraldine turns out to be a wealthy heiress and favourite of the gossip columns, and the press won't let her hide so easily.

Free As Air isn't quite as silly as Salad Days (anyone who saw it will know precisely which bit I mean,) although you do have to try and ignore the fact that, with only 14 residents on the island, most of whom have never left it, there must be in-breeding going on there on an industrial scale. Actually that would explain quite a lot. The island's seclusion is threatened when Geraldine is followed by a suitor, the racing driver Jack (Josh Little) and a relentless reporter, Ivy (Jane Quinn.) The latter sees the island as a perfect holiday destination and can't wait to tell the world about it.

There's no edge to Free As Air, an utterly old-fashioned musical in which everyone must be paired off at the end after falling in love at first sight, but its cheesiness becomes its strength as director Stewart Nicholls embraces it, letting his cast enjoy the silliness. Maybe a bit too much - Molly (Ruth Betteridge) instantly falls for how much more handsome Jack is than the local boys (because his parents weren't siblings so he doesn't have a third foot growing out of his forehead) but if they're not careful in their energetic dance routine, the cast of Rachel will be returning to find a broken table in the middle of their set. Once again I loved Reynolds and Slade's brand of gentle humour - when the Terhou residents speak fearfully of visiting "The Mainland" they actually mean Jersey.

There's a strong cast, with Baptie and Cane a likeable couple, Joanna Monro as the local spinster fending off the advances of Lord Paul (Richard Gibson,) Little suitably cheesy as the racing lothario, Kane Verrall sweet as a rival for Molly's affections, and Quinn remarkably chipper as Ivy is put in the stocks. The show's limited run is of course sold out but, with the amount of fans Reynolds and Slade's work acquired with Salad Days, I wouldn't be surprised if this is earmarked for a transfer.

Free As Air by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds is booking in repertory until the 21st of October at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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