Review: Salad Days, Riverside Studios

“We mustn’t say these are our happiest days, but our happiest days so far”

Despite leading with the tagline of ‘one of Britain’s best loved musicals’, I must admit to never having heard of Salad Days before this Riverside Studios and Tête à Tête production. Composed by Julian Slade and with book and lyrics by him and Dorothy Reynolds, it was apparently the longest-running musical in the West End until My Fair Lady so quite how it has passed me by until now I do not know, but I am ever so grateful that its cheery optimism is now in my life .

Set in 1954, Timothy and Jane have both just graduated from university and are facing pressure from their respective parents for him to find suitable employment through one of his influential uncles and for her to find an appropriately advantageous marriage. But anxious to make their own way in the world, they decide to get engaged to each other and to accept the first job that comes along, which just happens to be…looking after a mobile piano that when played, makes people dance uncontrollably. Predictably, the government in the form of the Minister of Pleasure and Pastime want to get their hands on this instrument of social disruption but in their efforts, the piano disappears and then events take an even more wonderfully insane turn.

And I absolutely loved it! It is extremely tuneful, the book is completely potty yet still anchored in a recognisable truth that means we really empathise with the characters and above all, it is just plain funny, I laughed so much it hurt at times. Director Bill Bankes-Jones has introduced so many great little touches that make the whole experience an absolute joy: from the moment you enter the auditorium, a smile is put upon your face with a great introductory conceit, a smile which I don’t think left my face ‘til long after I’d left and I don’t want to spoil any of them here (but I will recommend sitting on the cafe tables for a fun time). And the show is played with a completely straight bat throughout, no self-conscious irony or post-modern flourishes here, it is good honest fun in the best sense, redolent of other fantastical stories like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Mary Poppins in its appeal to the fun side of life even in difficult times, in this case post-WWII restructuring in Britain.

Tête-à-Tête have brought their experience as an opera company to bear in clearly casting exceptionally well in terms of the singing ability of its cast as it is quite a challenging score, occasionally something akin to Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, whilst recognisably musical theatre of its time. But most impressive of all is the fact that everyone is singing unmiked into a large hall and it sounds glorious. Whether it is solos, duets or the whole company singing and dancing their hearts out, under Anthony Ingle’s assured musical direction of two pianos, bass and drums and the relative intimacy of the performers (the Studio is in traverse), one is drawn right into the heart of the show.

Fresh out of the Avenue Q cast that just finished its run at the Wyndhams, Sam Harrison plays Timothy with a refreshing earnestness that we rarely see on the stage these days, strong in voice and great fun to watch dancing. But I was blown away by Katie Moore as Jane, making her theatrical debut here but looking and sounding for all the world as if she’s been doing this for years. Coming across as (and looking like) a younger version of the Rosamund Pike character from An Education (and this is high praise indeed from me), there’s a sweetness and practicality about her character that comes across so well and together, she and Harrison make the sweetest couple for whom one cannot help but root.

There’s an inordinate number of characters in this show which means that everyone aside from the two leads covers at least three roles and in several cases, up to six. This in turn allows multiple opportunities for people to shine Kathryn Martin worked the crowd hilariously as the sultry club singer Asphynxia; Spencer O’Brien makes his toff Nigel a genuinely appealing character; Tony Timberlake’s nimble-footed Inspector and tightly-starched MP were both great fun; Andrew Ahern’s PC Boot, Mark Inscoe’s club manager, Rebecca Caine’s Lady Raeburn, the list is endless. And given that there’s a fair deal of choreography from Quinny Sacks in big group dance numbers, lots of movement across and around the stage as incidental characters in the park and nowhere to hide vocally considering the lack of microphones, this has to be one of the best companies I’ve seen this year.

Prices may initially seem a little steep for a show in Hammersmith, but I have seen a few deals floating around and regardless, I promise you you will get your money’s worth and then some. Pure heart-warming escapism at its best: huge amounts of fun, laugh-out-loud funny, excellent songs, a plot so insane I could have come up with it, what more could you possibly want?!

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2 (and it is a dinky little thing)
Booking until 6th February

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