BWW Reviews PRIVATES ON PARADE, Noël Coward Theatre, December 10 2012
Privates on Parade is the first in a season of five plays at the Noël Coward Theatre, where the newly-formed Michael Grandage company - headed by the ex-artistic director of the Donmar - has set up camp. It is a rather starry line-up, which includes Jude Law and Judi Dench. Getting the season off to a cracking start, Simon Russell Beale plays the witty, warm-hearted drag queen, Acting Captain Terri Dennis, in this classic play by Peter Nichols.
If the thought of men dressed as women spouting innuendo doesn't grab you, don't worry. There is nothing flippant or glib about Nichols' script, which negotiates the sensitive territory of his subject well, avoiding the likely pitfalls of wartime comedies by balancing humour with real insight. When a young British private, fresh from school, turns up at a British barracks in Malaysia, he finds not the model of orderliness and discipline he expected, but the chaos of an acting troupe, where homosexuality is not just accepted, but flaunted. This is the late 1940s but, unlike back in Blighty, here in the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia it's possible to wear dresses, call each other by girls' names and just generally experiment.
Russell Beale drives the story as "aunty", whose dirty, acerbic punning never lets up. He brings warmth and depth of feeling to a character that could easily be reduced to a few comic turns - not that any of the humour of Nichols' very funny script and lyrics is lost however. Songs are well integrated into the play, and Denis King's original music, together with some believably naff choreography, brings the period alive. The light entertainment, stage within a stage, aspect of Privates on Parade informs the surrounding plot, with lyrics such as "Can you please inform us how we came to lose the war that we won in 1945?" getting to the heart of the piece. Some believable relationships emerge between the men too, while Sophiya Haque is charming as Sylvia, the only woman in the show.
Only the straight-laced Major Giles Flack (Angus Wright) is apparently oblivious to the all goings on right under his nose, even when he smells perfume on one of his soldiers. But comic scenes like this have more than one shade of dark undertone. Not only is the Major's obliviousness a reminder of the non-permissive attitudes awaiting the men back home, it also underlines the unwillingness on the parts of the British commanders to see what stares them in the face: not just a bit of camp ribaldry but an escalating guerrilla war with the Malayan communists. Grandage's direction brings every nuance of the play out superbly.