Finborough Theatre Presents Free As Air

Julian Slade revival is dated but not dull, says Bill Hagerty

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Julian Slade and his co-lyricist and librettist Dorothy Reynolds cooked up this whimsical musical after their big 1954 hit, Salad Days – still revived sporadically today – had whetted the public appetite for frothy innocence and toe-tapping tunes that sent them back into the streets of austere post-War England with smiles on their faces.

Free As Air earned more modest success than the writers’ earlier effort, but even today, with a different austerity still lurking behind us, the feel-good factor is evident in this production and its effect on audiences seeking entertainment that hugs them warmly, like a favourite aunt.

Choosing musicals to share the Finborough’s tiny playing area with heavyweight drama (currently Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel) is indicative of the theatre’s chutzpah, even if a cast of 17 makes the risk of on-stage collision greater than crossing the Earl’s Court Road during rush hour.

But, suitably for a resolute, very English piece, they cope well not only with some perfunctory choreography but with a set bearing much of the props from the aforementioned Rachel. Hence a wooden table and chairs stand solidly in the middle of a space which, for most of Free As Air’s two hours, is supposed to be representing a beachside idyll on a fictional Channel Island. Strands of seaweed fashioned out of what looks like crepe paper help only a little.

No matter. The cast determinedly delivers the feel-good goods. Never have so many gleaming teeth been bared in smiles wider than the Channel. Never has a happy ending been so safely guaranteed. Free As Air, here aired for the first time professionally in 50 years, may be more dated than an Arabian palm tree, but its sheer exuberance shines through.

The plot? An unlucky-in-love heiress seeks anonymity on the island of Terhou, where the local population bask in sun and sweetness and rarely visit the wicked “mainland”. Pursued by a cad of a racing driver ex-boyfriend and an initially unscrupulous Fleet Street hackette (Jane Quinn), Geraldine (Charlotte Baptie) suffers both fools and the attentions of a local swain gladly. Eventually, all is well in the land of “nothing but sea and sun”, just as we knew it would be.

Slade knew how to write a hummable score and this one includes a couple of sweet duets as well as novelty set pieces, of which the best is “Her Mummy Doesn’t Like Me Any More”, a lament on his rejection by chain of girls sung caddishly by the cad (Josh Little). Some of the co-authors’ lyrics are praiseworthy too – rhyming “beyond the horizon” with “a dress with hooks and eyes on” took skill.

Ruth Betteridge, as a feisty islander looking for love, lends a fine soprano voice to Stewart Nicholls’ equally spirited production and congratulations are due to the entire cast for not once bumping into the furniture.

Free As Air plays on Sunday, Mondays and Tuesdays until 21 October.

For tickets, call the box office on 0844 847 1652 or book online here.

October 9, 2014