All sorts of privates are on parade at London’s Noel Coward Theatre, for Michael Grandage has left no stone unturned in this revival of Peter Nicholls 1977 play about an innocent young soldier sent to Malaya in 1948.
With everything you might imagine: wine, women, song, men of every sexual persuasion, intrigue, murder and revenge it’s all served with a huge dose of understatement and an amateur quality that has been honed to perfection.
On the face of it, the biggest draw is Simon Russell Beale as Dennis, the cross-dressing Captain of an army entertainment corps. He welcomes the new recruit, Private Flowers (Joseph Timms) into the circle of ‘bum boys’ as they are abusively known to the bullying Sergeant Major Reg Drummond (Mark Lewis Jones), who decides it’s his job to educate the boy.
The studious Private Flowers is drawn to the theatrical circle, but falls for the girl. Then, under pressure from Major Flack, a religious anti-communist fanatic, he is persuaded that he must abandon one of the two things he loves. But in a lovely twist, The boy finally learns from gay Captain Dennis that being a man is not about what you do with your privates, but how you deal with the consequences.
It’s been described as a farce – but this does not do it justice. Like all the best comedies, it has a serious side. The ‘queers’ are living through a time when gay sex was illegal and half-caste spouses were not accepted back home. Now that era is safely passed, it has become a nostalgic piece about a minority who lived on the edge but were central to the cultural revolution that continues to this day.
The play is of its time, a snapshot of recent history. Allowances have to be made for the fact that the language is full of references to bum-boys, queens and queers which fail to get the laughs they once would, and the incessant swearing of Corporal Len Bonny falls similarly wide of the mark. Though it’s no fault of John Marquez, his expletives are only slightly more amusing than an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen.
Simon Russell Beale does make a wonderfully camp cross-dressing captain, but he also gives us a real character. His Dennis is full of humanity and he perfectly conveys a sense of lonely futility regarding the British army’s song-and-dance tour of the Malaysian jungle. ‘This is …. theatre…’ he gestures, gazing out at the rainforest.
As good as some of the individuals are, the cast work best as a team. The banter is quick, and will likely get even better, moreover they perfectly capture the amateur quality of the army’s musical show, with legs and arms just out of kilter, missed cues and lights that occasionally fail. The choreography is deliberately low key and very enjoyable as a result. The exception that proves the rule is a beautiful Fred and Ginger routine by Private Flowers and Sophyia Haque (Sylvia Morgan).
Best of all are the songs themselves. Denis King’s music and Peter Nicholls lyrics are pastiches of Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda and Noel Coward. Some songs need Christopher Oram’s outrageously camp outfits. Others need no accompaniement, with acerbic lyrics that lampoon everything from the war and the establishment to the NHS.
They would make a wonderful treat for the adults after Christmas dinner. ‘Land of Hope and Glory, where the teeth are free’ would be a perfect alternative to the national anthem. Though there’s one with a rhyme about the Kaiber Pass that might be best served after the port.
The script may be a little dated in places, but it works well on every other level. Camp humour and anti-establishment sentiment will never go out of fashion, nor will nostalgia for the second world war. For those who indulge, this is a must.
Miranda Chitty received ticket, programme and drink from Kate Morley PR
Privates on Parade continues at the Noel Coward theatre until March 2, evenings at 7.30pm matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Slightly different schedule over Christmas, see here. Online ticketing.
Photos: Johan Persson