During the early fifties Bristol’s Theatre Royal repertory company was in vibrant mood, a number of their excellent productions having had successful transfers to London. The company had been built by director Denis Carey and included Julian Slade, a young university graduate. Slade became the resident musical director and composer of incidental music for their plays which included a well-received production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. He had also written the score for a musical version of Sheridan’s The Duenna with a cast that included Patricia Routledge and Joan Plowright, and which opened at the Westminster theatre on 28 July 1954, where it was a success. Julian had previously collaborated with Dorothy Reynolds, one of the actresses in the company, on two original Christmas shows.
The success of the Christmas shows led Denis Carey to present a light summer production to run for a three week season in Bristol between two rather heavyweight plays. The team of Slade and Reynolds thought ‘summer’ and worked up a light-hearted romp in revuesical style, suitable for the season, and built around the talents of the company, not all of whom were good or even trained singers. The result was Salad Days, named after a Shakespeare quote.
The show opened on 1 June 1954 and was such a critical success and crowd pleaser that London producers were invited to Bristol. And, two agreed it should come to town together with those cast members who were able to do the transfer. So, two months after it had premiered in Bristol and after a brief try-out in Brighton, Salad Days opened on 5 August 1954 at the Vaudeville Theatre in London wher it remained until 1960 when it closed after a run of 2283 performances.
Salad Days is, on the face of it, a piece of fluff but its simplicity hides an extremely well formed musical show with infectious songs that are easy to sing. The accompaniment was provided by just two pianos, one played for much of the run by Slade himself.
The show is built around the tale of a magic piano, one that can make people dance. Timothy and Jane have just left university and are having to find their way in the world with the help (or hindrance) of their respective families. They decide to marry secretly for they are fond of each other and plan to fall in love later. Their lack of income is miraculously solved for the summer when a tramp offers them £7 a week to look after Minnie, his piano, a task in which they are aided by Troppo, a mute with amusing charm, who also appears on the scene.
And then the problems start. Tim’s parents are hoping to get him a good job through one of his four uncles (there are five actually but the last is never mentioned) and then the couple manage to lose the piano that has set London dancing, and is now wanted by the police. Tim and Jane end up on a flying saucer (yes, one of the uncles has a flying saucer, who of course turns out to be the unmentioned uncle!) returning with the piano to reclaim it.
Eleanor Drew, one of the few trained singers in the cast, played Jane and Timothy was John Warner. Co-writer Dorothy Reynolds played, as many of the cast did, a number of roles including Asphinxia, a cabaret artist and seductress who was introduced by Eric Port as the night club manager.
Salad Days has never really disappeared, having been revived regularly – four of which had West end showings. Its place in musical history is assured, not only because of its long run, but the fact that this was the first show seen by a young Cameron Mackintosh and which sparked off his lifelong interest in the form.
There was a brief New York showing but, not surprisingly, it was ‘not their cup of tea’. However, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa took it to their hearts.
A revival can be seen at the Union Theatre until 9 September.
RSB Illustrations from the Overtures Archive