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.