Free As Air (Finborough Theatre)

Stewart Nicholls’ revival of this 1950s musical does not entirely make the case for rediscovering it

The Finborough Theatre has established something of a reputation for unearthing and dusting off neglected plays and musicals. Its latest "lost musical", Free As Air, was last seen in a professional production 40 years ago and has been revived to coincide with the 60th anniversary of creators Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds‘ biggest hit Salad Days. The problem with digging up old relics, however, is that sometimes they don’t really demand to be found.

Stewart Nicholls‘ production, while often enjoyable, does not entirely make the case for restoring this particular antique. Stuck in something of a Gilbert and Sullivan hangover, Free As Air is not quite enough of a pastiche to be consistently hilarious, yet it has its tongue too far in its cheek to ever be taken seriously. Instead it is silly, insubstantial and not a little wonky, veering between irreverent send-up and candyfloss lightness.

The title is a reference to the show’s fictional Channel Island, an independent – if slightly backward – paradise where all are free and tourists have not yet invaded. On the eve of its annual Independence Day, the idyll of Terhou is interrupted by the arrival of glamorous stranger Geraldine, on the run from the press and a doggedly persistent suitor. She is quickly embraced by the islanders, but her arrival could interrupt their treasured peace forever.

Within the limits of the Finborough’s tiny stage and the set for the theatre’s main show, Nicholls and his large cast do well to inject some energy into this daft little oddity. Apart from the odd moment of crowding and confusion, the space is deftly utilised, even if Oona Tibbetts‘ makeshift design of bunting and fairy lights is forced to leave a lot to the imagination. Tunes such as the recurring "A Man From the Mainland" and "Free to Sing" give in to all-out silliness, while the choreography to "Holiday Island" vividly conjures the potential chaos of a tourist stampede.

The problem is that Free As Air is just ridiculous enough to inspire exasperated grins at its saccharine frivolity, but not enough to turn those grins into guffaws. The brand of musical turned to by Slade and Reynolds has long since been overtaken by what followed it, now appearing quaint at best and dated at worst. There’s plenty to tickle in Nicholls’ revival, but by taking the gentle middle road between reverence and spoof it fails to make this musical sing for today.

Free As Air runs on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at the Finborough Theatre until 21 October.