“A man’s life is longer if he lazes,
Make time last by wandering through the daisies”
Discovering the unalloyed joy of Salad Days through Tête-à-Tête’s recent Riverside Studios production has to be one of my all-time favourite theatrical moments so the marking of its 60th anniversary with a production of a rarely seen show by the same writers was right up my street. Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade’s Free As Air hasn’t been seen professionally since 1974 but in the sure hands of Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainments and Neil McPherson’s Finborough Theatre, director/choreographer Stewart Nicholls makes a compelling case for its revival.
Much of the joy of these musicals that the Finborough has resuscitated with their ‘Celebrating British Music Theatre’ series comes from the thrill of unamplified ensembles filling this most intimate of theatres with the joy of song. And with a cast of 17 here, Nicholls and musical director Ben Stock pitch it just right, capturing the endearing glee that comes from something so determinedly old-fashioned yet utterly sincere in its delivery – it would be easy to bandy the word ‘twee’ about but there’s a real emotional honesty to the playing here.
The show is set on the fiercely independent and fictional Channel Island of Terhou where the biggest trouble of the day is finding someone to crown as queen at a festival who hasn’t done it before. The surprise arrival of Geraldine Melford offers an opportunity to them but as she’s an heiress being hounded by the press and an over-keen racing driver would-be paramour, pesky mainlanders seem set to ruin the fun for everyone. It is undoubtedly extremely daft but huge amounts of fun as love matches are made, constitutional crises averted and seaweed sorted for the special day.
The company sound simply glorious – Charlotte Baptie’s shimmering soprano leads beautifully as Geraldine but there’s also great support from Daniel Cane as the smitten Albert, Ruth Betteridge as a bicep-feeling village maiden and Josh Little as the handsome tart who likes the attention, and the sweetly played late-blooming (but long in the gestation) romance between Joanna Monro and Ted Merwood’s islanders. But then there’s Jane Quinn’s striking journalist and Ian Belsey’s shopkeeper too, the quality of the cast really does shine through from top to bottom.
Special mention has to go to Nicholls’ choreography though, for some outrageously entertaining routines that simply shouldn’t work in so small a space – the deliveries of ‘The Boat’s In’ are off-loaded just brilliantly, the Act One closer (and most effective recap of the story so far) ‘The Girl From London’ amuses with its narrative clarity, and the gentle charm of ‘Let The Grass Grow’ is a pleasure to behold. A shining example of a neglected piece of British musical theatre history, Free As Air is just delightfully good fun.