Tuesday 11 December 2012

Theatre review: Privates on Parade

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will probably know not to expect too much in the way of sensible reviewing from my musings on Privates on Parade at the Noël Coward. Any poor unfortunates who've googled their way here in the hope of figuring out whether the show's worth seeing, I hope you enjoy disappointment, because here you go: The reason, of course, is that Privates on Parade is among other things notorious for how literally its title should be taken with regard to male nudity. And once it was announced that Big Favourite Round These Parts Sam Swainsbury would be in the cast, along with the not unwelcome additions of Joseph Timms and Harry Hepple, I basically spent the couple of months leading up to the show like a toddler who'd overdosed on Sunny Delight. Look, I'm just very, very sexually frustrated, OK? So the fact that, although the nudity remains, it's rather more coy than expected about flashing actual front bottoms, was a bit of a disappointment (people who saw previews tell me things were a bit more clearly on display then; maybe the West End audience clutched their pearls a bit too hard and it was toned down?)

Anyway, if I can put voyeurism to one side for a moment (unlikely,) this is the opener from Michael Grandage, in his first season with his own production company, and he chooses Peter Nichols' play, with music by Denis King, about Singapore just after the war. The British Empire's last embers sputter out on Christopher Oram's atmospherically shabby set as Steven Flowers (Timms) is stationed there on National Service, where he joins the entertainment troupe who put on shows to keep up the other soldiers' morale. He finds friendship among the other privates and romance with the only female member, but there's also a darker side with the paranoid Sergeant Major Drummond (Mark Lewis Jones) engaged in a number of illegal operations, and Major Flack's (Angus Wright) complete lack of awareness proving pretty dangerous to his out-of-their-depth troops.

But the other thing the play is famous for is the entertainment troupe's star turn, Acting Captain Terri Dennis. Each play in Grandage's season has at least one star name leading it and for Privates on Parade the director says he largely revisited the show (which he'd already directed at the Donmar) because he wanted to see Simon Russell Beale with fruit on his head. I rather thought SRB was phoning it in for Timon of Athens but for the role of Terri Dennis, who could so easily be a stereotype of the ageing mid-20th century queen (all Polari, double entendres and feminising the men's names,) he really pulls out all the stops. He's full of enthusiasm in the musical numbers, whether as Terri himself, as a Noël Coward pastiche (appropriately enough in the theatre that bears his name) or in one of his many drag alter egos of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn or Carmen Miranda. But he's also full of heart in Terri's self-proclaimed role as "auntie" to the younger soldiers, and fiercely protective of the one female troupe member, half-Indian, half-Welsh Sylvia (Sophiya Haque, very good.)

There's a lot about the soldiers' attitudes that's hard to sympathise with from a modern point of view: The camp's two local servants (Chris Chan and Sadao Ueda) are treated even by the more likeable characters as less than human (and Grandage's production encourages us throughout to see that the Brits underestimate them at their peril.) Racist and sexist language abounds. However it also serves to highlight the contrast in how, contrary to the situation back at home, they're all pretty relaxed in their attitude to sexuality. Drummond is vaguely hostile and Flack oblivious, but the men themselves don't bat an eye at Terri's flamboyant sexuality; and while Swainsbury's cockney Kevin Cartwright is full of casual sexism and racism, he treats Eric's (Brodie Ross) proclamations of his own heterosexuality like the defensiveness it is. And while the increasingly unlikeable Flowers' relationship with Sylvia proves shallow and brings out the worst in him, the real emotional core is in the unlikely love affair of the prissy Lance Corporal Bishop (Hepple) and John Marquez's amusingly sweary Corporal Bonny.

The play being essentially a musical it does occasionally suffer from some of that genre's problems of stringing its big numbers together in a sometimes vague way, and I didn't enjoy the second act as much as the first. But with a lot of tickets selling at £10 (£12 with booking fee, unless you book the whole season together) and the theatre pretty good as far as sightlines from the gods go, this is a solid enough start to Grandage's season, with a performance from SRB that reminds us how he became so well-loved in the first place.

Privates on Parade by Peter Nichols and Denis King is booking until the 2nd of March at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.


  1. Thank you for a really brilliantly insightful review. You told me what I needed to know! Still looking forward to seeing it soon

    1. Well there's always something to be said for reviewing the information people are actually interested in, rather than the stuff you're supposed to.