Ditsy daisy refrains

This kitsch "Ladybird book" musical couldn't be more fun.

The Salad Days lovers sing "we said we wouldn't look back!" as they graduate from Oxford in 1954: already elegiac in tone as they prepare for the real world in which the men are defined by work and the women defined by the men they marry. There's a bevy of patriarchal uncles ready to tip the wink to various institutions on Timothy's behalf, and a bevy of patriarchal bachelors ready to sign up Jane to the institution of marriage.

The very title is elegiac: a paean to lost youth, a wistful vision of endless sunny days that would have been fantastical escapism even in 1954, when the musical was first performed; doubly so now in this respectful revival by Bill Bankes-Jones of Tête-à-Tête opera, who remembers crooning along to an old vinyl cast recording in his own childhood.

I hesitate to mention plot, since there isn't one to speak of. A magic piano that "makes everyone gay" features large. And there's a flying saucer. But really it's a series of numbers that are strung like pearls along a pretextual thread of amusement. This is a Mary Poppins caper, a holiday from real life: some have pointed out the parallels with our own times - the Cold War references prefiguring our own paranoiac times, for example, but I think it possible to overstate the case; the pursuit of such analogues tends to say more about the spectator than the spectacle. It's hard to make any great political capital out of a magic piano that makes everyone dance, and a libretto like this one:

"Look at me - oh!
Look at me - oh!
Look at me, I'm dancing!"

It's a completely dotty story. Race, gender and class are skipped through with all the insouciance of a Ladybird reading book - Egyptians wear fezzes; Russians sport turbans and do a bit of Cossack kicking. Dear Jane is perfectly blonde; the women wear the flippy "ultrafeminine" skirts of the New Look; the emotional palette is pastel. There is even a mute clown who expresses himself through the medium of mime, who is called, as if to forestall our objections, Troppo (too much).

Salad Days could (perhaps should) have been awful. Its saving grace is the unwavering cast who perform this flimsy daisy chain of a show with nothing less than complete conviction. This self-belief is as catchy as the show-tunes. The tone is kept straight, or as straight as is possible given that this is a period piece, and as such subject to the distortions of time. The ensemble remains po-faced as they tackle the antique semantics - the instrument that makes everyone gay - and they take the fifties diction equally seriously: hat becomes het, piano becomes pi-ah-no and so on.

The show's great coup is the evocation of intimacy: the audience are welcomed in by the performers; some are later asked to dance, and we are all invited to sing. Bankes-Jones has kept the singers unamplified. I hadn't realised how much I had missed the sheer connective power of the human voice, unmediated by microphones. And they are physically close to us, and exposed to us, on their cheery quadrangle of astroturf that greens up the traverse stage. Two pianos, a drum and double bass enthusiastically rip through the intricate score, and support the already buoyant voices.

There are, en passant, some fabulously awful rhymes too. In the nightclub Egypt, they sing of Cleopatra (and it was Shakespeare's Cleopatra who coined the term "salad days") who wouldn't "p-tolerate a Ptolemy to collar me," and "sugar daddy Caesar" is paired with "squeeze her".

Evangels of musical theatre, Tête-à-Tête have a seriousness of purpose which, combined with a comic-strip energy, make for a considerable charm offensive. They have certainly managed to rejuvenate this ditsy daisy chain, which should by rights have wilted over the years - I take my het off to them.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496