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.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder