Yet another production featuring a gay man swishing around the stage. We’ve whinged about the outbreak which started with this went on in that and ended up in Viva Forever! There’s an epidemic in London’s theatreland; the vaccine for theatrical queenitis is presumably in its very early stages of development.
But the big differences in Peter Nichols‘ 1977 Privates on Parade are that (a) camp Captain Terri Dennis’ character is a key and sympathetic central character and (b) he’s utterly, genuinely hilarious. Unlike those other shows the audience are laughing with him and not at him. Well, OK then, we do laugh at him too, but for all the right reasons.
It will come as little surprise to hear that the Whingers have fond memories of their own splendidly striking individual Privates. Phil saw Denis Quilley’s original portrayal of Terri and Andrew saw Roger Allam’s jaw-droppingly magnificent ocean liner of a portrayal in Michael Grandage‘s 2001 revival at the Donar. We can report that both were brilliant performances. And as theatrical bonuses, the former also featured Nigel Hawthorne, the latter a young James McAvoy.
Grandage is directing it again in the first production of his much-trumpeted season at the Noel Coward Theatre. The star attraction waxing his body parts to lead an overseas British military concert party is Mr Simon Russell Beale.
The troupe are entertaining the troops fighting communist insurgents in Malaysia in the late 40s. How entertaining they are to the British lads fighting overseas it is difficult to tell. They certainly entertained us. SRB is the USP here and his ludicrous impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda are a joy. Surely someone will have the sense to cast him as a pantomime dame very soon. But despite the generous flouncing there’s also incredible subtlety. His Noel Coward transformation gets laughs with a look and the touch of his ear. One hopes he’s enjoying it as much as we are. He certainly appears to be having a ball even if his character is less successful pulling the privates.
It’s a wonder any other performer gets a look in but the rest of the cast are excellent too. Angus Wright‘s Major Flack is superbly gruff and upright, the broom handle which was presumably inserted into his uniform must be as uncomfortable as Beale’s Cuban heels. And new recruit to the troop Joseph Timms‘ Private Flowers’ initial naivety is as convincing as when he cottons on and seizes the opportunities on offer to become an ex-virgin soldier.
Under Christopher Oram‘s crumbling stone colonial buildings, which also doubles as a second proscenium (a second proscenium! We were being horribly indulged) casual racism and homophobia of the period mixes with soldierly camaraderie, romance, lust and violence. Paule Constable’s lighting is so believably tropical you can almost feel the humidity. Though thankfully, unlike here, there was no parading of the Whingers’ own privates to cool their prickly heat.
Denis King‘s music to Nichol’s lyrics are believable pastiches of the era. And to cap it all there is a real rain storm though sensibly not when any of Richard Mawbey’s glorious wigs are being aired.
The only fly in the ointment really is the uncomfortable stereotype of the inscrutable-but-probably-menacing orientals which a “last laugh” directorial twist to the ending fails utterly to redeem.
Still, this is solid, old-fashioned, mostly hugely enjoyable fare. Highly recommended.