Free As Air, originally produced at the Savoy Theatre in 1957, was the musical that the composer Julian Slade and his co lyricist-author Dorothy Reynolds wrote while Salad Days, their first collaboration, was still playing at the Vaudeville Theatre across the way in the Strand. It ran for a year and the original cast recording and sales of the sheet music of the songs enjoyed considerable popularity in their own right. It comes as no surprise then to discover that Slade’s music gives this production its raison d’etre and that this talented company under the assured direction of Stewart Nicholls gives it full measure.
The story takes place on Tehrou, in all but name the channel island of Sark, where the islanders wake up to the fact that they have no girl to crown as their island Queen. Their predicament is resolved by the arrival of Geraldine (Charlotte Baptie), an heiress escaping from the press on the mainland, to whom the honour falls. She is not the only outsider to arrive on the island, as she is pursued by an admirer, Jack Amersham (Josh Little) and a reporter, Ivy Crush (Jane Quinn) and eventually the paparazzi. The islanders are presided over by Lord Paul Posthumous, (Richard Gibson) and amongst the island girls (already crowned) are Molly (Ruth Betteridge) looking for her ‘man from the mainland’ and Miss Catamole (Joanna Monro), the senior ‘maiden’.
Despite the compromise of a stage set for another production running concurrently, the scattered props (ropes, seashells) give a suggestion of our surroundings. The plot unravels slowly with the early song, ‘Let the Grass Grow’ (under your feet) sung by Lord Paul, shopkeeper and bailiff (Ian Belsey, Ted Merwood), setting the tone for much of the evening. But the slightness and charm of the music, always key ingredients in a Slade score, are turned on their head when the real world intrudes on the islanders’ life and the hot issues of the day, a plan for a holiday camp and the pursuit of a private figure who is now public property, come to the fore. The Paparazzi trio of Kane Verrall, Anthony Harris and James Dangerfield, previously in character as island yokels, excel in the execution of a saucy lyric, ‘Geraldine’, nattily choreographed by Nicholls, who within the small space devises many an imaginative ensemble such as the Act I finale, ‘The Girl From London’.
Betteridge sings her heart out as Molly. To her falls the lovely song ‘Terhou’, a folk-like tune, which Lord Paul attempts on recorder before we hear it in full. Little gives us a star turn as the smooth-talking racing driver Jack with his number, ‘Her Mummy Doesn’t Like Me Anymore’ and partners Molly in their sweet duet ‘Feet On the Ground’. Towards the close of the show Miss Catamole and Potter the bailiff sing the touching duet ‘We’re Holding Hands’ and Quinn excels as Ivy Crush, ‘the smart reporter’, with her spot on delivery of ‘Daily Echo’ and ‘Holiday Island’.
As the heiress Geraldine, Baptie not only looks the part but sings it really beautifully, her solo ‘Nothing But Sea and Sky’, a highlight. All the singing is of an exceptionally high standard with the entire ensemble relishing their part work in the patriotic ‘Free As Air’ number, led with gusto by Albert (Daniel Cane). The show’s pianist James Church embellishes the vocal score, making light work of some tricky accompaniments. Nicholls, very sensibly, makes no attempt to update topical references or to infer that the title itself might be interpreted as a political statement of the island’s recent history. His production of Free As Air plays to its strengths and gives us a most welcome opportunity to reassess its not inconsiderable merits.
* Free As Air is presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.