Salad Days/Malvern Theatres

WHENEVER the 1950s come to mind, a damp and grey curtain seems to descend, smothering all before it.

So when Salad Days exploded on to the stage in 1954, it must have been like a searchlight cutting through the gloom and austerity of post-war Britain.

It’s said that lyricist Dorothy Reynolds and composer Julian Slade rattled this one off in a breathtaking three weeks. And you can believe this, too – because it’s utterly mad, totally off-the-wall and zany in the extreme.

It’s also peculiarly British, a sort of Lewis Carroll meets Rupert Bear at a Gilbert and Sullivan convention hosted in a hollowed-out mystical mountain deep in the jungle.

In many ways, this two hours and ten minutes of fantasy, inanity and gloriously abandoned absurdity seems to be a kind of two fingers up to anxious times that were riddled with the fear of communism, nuclear war, creeping Americanisation and the threat of an alien invasion from outer space.

Despite appearances, the plot is actually simple in the extreme, involving a magical piano that makes people dance whether they want to or not. A stream of ridiculous adventures then befalls all those who come under its spell.

This is a production bursting with larger-than-life characters, all of whom are led by the irrepressible Wendi Peters doubling up as a Hyacinth Bucket-style posh lady and a common-as-muck auntie.

The female singing parts are deliciously crazy, with Jessica Croll’s Jane just about out-shrilling Maeve Byrne’s voice, which appears to present a threat to any cut glass object within a two-mile radius of the theatre.

Nathan Elwick as policeman Boot is pure G&S, liberally spiced with a large dose of Keystone Cops. Curiously, the part that holds you transfixed is Callum Evans’ Troppo, which is a non-speaking part.

Evans is plainly a master of mime and floods the stage with a stream of visual humour.

Salad Days must surely have been regarded as being pretty wacky when it first appeared but quite obviously endures because of its ability to tap into the great British love of the absurd. It runs until Saturday (October 6) and is enthusiastically recommended.

John Phillpott