Salad Days, Union Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

The 1950s musical Salad Days is, let’s face it, an odd one. Ostensibly the story of two Oxbridge graduates who rebel against their parents in the most genteel of ways – by marrying and getting a job without their mothers’ influence – the story quickly goes in directions that makes one wonder what the students were smoking before they completed their studies.

College friends Jane (Lowri Hamer) and Timothy (Laurie Denman), who are sweetly adorable together, soon find themselves custodians of a magical piano which, when played out in the open air, forces anyone within earshot to start dancing.

For reasons best lost to the ether, this upsets the establishment, precipitating events (one can’t really call it a plot) that races into an Egypt-themed nightclub, the world of haute couture and a flying saucer piloted by a mute alien called Electrode, who speaks by passing electric shocks to whoever she grabs hold of.

In short, it is so utterly bonkers that it makes the Rocky Horror Show look sedately plausible. And yet it is so quaintly, cutely English – echoing Gilbert and Sullivan, Morris dancing, and the world of Brideshead Revisited – that one can utterly accept its eccentricities.

It helps that the production is presented in such an amenable manner. Director Bryan Hodgson has clearly worked hard to ensure that the Union’s stage feels expansive enough to represent a park space, while keeping it populated with characters and caricatures that are all a pleasure to watch. Coupled with Joanne McShane’s exuberant choreography, there is a spirit of fun present throughout, even through the occasional dips in pace within Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade’s book.

In an unusual but welcome move, the band, which in most Union-hosted musicals feel pushed underneath the theatre’s imposing staircase, is placed fully on stage.

Just that small decision lifts the sound of a three-piece band – drummer Joe Pickering, bassist Andrew Richards, and piano playing by any one of three cast members – such that it fills the space far better than the Union’s conventional staging.

It also enhances the vocal performances of the large ensemble cast. While Denman is on the quiet side for a leading man, his co-star Hamer has a beautiful, resonant soprano, and performances from Stephen Patrick, Tom Norman and James Gulliford provide a nice balance of male voices.

Vocally, though, the stand-out performance is Maeve Byrne’s lounge singer Asphynxia.

Making her professional debut, Emma Lloyd gets several chances to demonstrate her comedic abilities, from a wilfully awful narration of a catwalk show to a turn as the most bored cabaret dancer that provides one of the show’s most humorous visuals.

Impressive too is Jacob Seickell’s mime Troppo, one of the musical’s most expressive performers in movement alone.

True, when the flying saucer turns up in the middle of Act II, the story and the pace go to pot a little. But even then, Slade’s songs remain light and airy, defying anyone not to leave with a smile on their face.

It may be one of British musical theatre’s weirdest, most eccentric shows, but Salad Days is also one of its sunniest. And the Union Theatre’s production captures that brightness to thrilling effect.