Charm is the most delicate and elusive of qualities. Nostalgic charm needs a featherweight touch if it is not to disintegrate. This 50th anniversary touring production of the Bristol Old Vic end-of-season show which went on to break London West End records properly takes Salad Days at its own light-hearted valuation - and nearly pulls it off.
It's a vanished world, of course. Graduating from Oxbridge, a well-bred young man would find himself eased into the 'right' sort of job through family influence. A 'nice girl' would be launched via the débutante circuit into a comfortable marriage to a well-off bachelor, preferably one with a title.
If you wandered through a London park, even after dark, you might meet a strange man with a magic piano or even see a flying saucer. You wouldn't expect to encounter a knife-wielding maniac or fall victim to a nuclear or biological weapons attack. Life was simpler. There was innocence as well as naiveté. There really was, and this musical embodies it.
A brilliant set by Paul Cox offers a tuppence coloured cut-out affair with elements of the watercolours of Osbert Lancaster and Paul Hogarth delicately touched in. There are equally effective and accurate costumes by Ella Kidd. Moreover, you would have to go a long way to better Helen Power as the young heroine Jane. She sings, speaks and dances Jenny Arnold's routines superbly and, you can hear every word.
Articulation is the main letdown of this staging. The lyrics of Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade are witty as well as apposite to the differing situations in which Jane and Timothy - not to mention their friends and relations - find themselves. Their pedigree stretches back to W S Gilbert through Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin.
So it would have helped to be able to follow the words. I suspect that Malcolm Bennett's musical arrangement of Slade's score is to blame. Because his cast is made up of singing actors who are also instrumentalists, whoever isn't on-stage is tooting and strumming off-stage. Add in a cacophony of uneven miking and the result is bound to be an audible blur.
That said, there are neat performances all round. Jamie Read looks and sounds right as Timothy and Gary O'Sullivan cuts a neat caper as the top and bottom ends of the legal hierarchy. Vicki Michelle flourishes a lethal array of hats and pencil skirts as Jane's mother and a night-club diva while Tony Howes takes care of most of the obvious eccentrics in the cast.
Salad days? Well, we all have those - green in judgement if not cold in blood - in one way and another. So, if you like your rocket with a pungent dressing, this may not be the show for you. If you appreciate a subtle aftertaste, then it is. Enjoy.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage)