Pros: Beautifully sung, with some great comedy from an enthusiastic cast.
Cons: This production deserves its own set. Seating is a bit ‘cosy’.
I knew virtually nothing about Free As Air before I arrived to see it at Finborough Theatre. But I was in luck, because my neighbour on the cramped banquette had been to see the original 1957 production of the show and was able to give me the lowdown. In particular, he directed my attention to the comical lyrics and these did not disappoint. I smirked like an idiot throughout the two hour show, at lyrics that included “I want a man from the mainland”, “her mummy doesn’t like me anymore”, as well as a reporter filing copy in song, and a musical inventory of items coming off the boat.
The story is set on the fictional channel island of Terhou, where a small community of locals are preparing for the annual Independence Day celebration. Into their midst lands a runaway heiress, whose arrival threatens their peaceful seclusion, but also sets in motion a series of romances. Absurd? Absolutely! The whole production is unashamedly and joyfully daft, without feeling the need to be arch or knowing.
Free As Air worked surprisingly well in the intimate space of the Finborough Theatre. No microphones were required and when the whole ensemble sang it was a very immersive experience. You could also see every detail of the performances. Charlotte Baptie, as the heiress, particularly surprised me, by pulling all sorts of comical expressions while remaining a picture of demure sophistication. Ian Belsey had no such balance to strike. He was every bit the island’s pompous factotum, puffed up and proper with eyes that popped out of his head.
Along with some great comedy, the show also had wonderful songs; memorable tunes and those hilarious lyrics, performed by classically-trained and well-rehearsed singers. Choreography was of the kind that is obviously perfectly put together, but not meant to look too slick. There was also some fine physical comedy, but not least of the show’s achievements was to have the entire cast dancing together on a stage smaller than the average kitchen.
‘Generous’ and ‘good-natured’ were the words that came to mind as I left the theatre. There was a really warm and friendly atmosphere in the audience, some of whom were chatting to the pianist during the interval. The show has to share a set with Finborough’s other current production, Rachel, but through the energy of the cast and the willingness of the audience, we were transported to a sleepy fishing village, despite being presented with a genteel drawing room bizarrely draped with fishing nets. It is only playing for nine nights, to a full house of fifty, yet no commitment has been spared in creating this exuberant show.
It boasts a cast of seventeen, which is massive for an off-West End venue in these straitened times and that cast is, without exception, talented, enthusiastic and eager to please; they did not stop singing, even as they took their bows. The story is gentle, innocent and heart-warming – this particular production deserves a much wider audience. My neighbour, the resident Free As Air aficionado, gave his judgement, as the lights came up: “What a tonic!”
Book & lyrics: Julian Slade & Dorothy Reynolds
Music: Julian Slade
Director: Stewart Nicholls
Musical director: Ben Stock
Producer: Katy Lipson for Aria, with Neil McPherson for Finborough Theatre
Booking Until: Sundays, Mondays & Tuesdays until 21st October.
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/venue/finborough-theatre-tickets/FINBOROERD/905?page=2