Friday 28 December 2012

Privates on Parade

Simon Russell Beale in Privates on Parade
Photograph: Johan Persson
Peter Nichols play Privates on Parade was written for the Royal Shakespeare Company and first performed by them in 1977. Billed as a play with songs, rather than a musical, it is about a forces concert party in South East Asia in the 1950's, based on Nichols own experiences in Combined Services Entertainment, the postwar successor to ENSA. The show is entertaining, but with a serious edge, even when being extremely funny Nichols writing is quite pointed. Michael Grandage directed a revival of the play in 2001 (with Roger Allam) and it is this play with which Grandage opened his season at the Noel Coward Theatre. We saw the play, as Christmas treat, on Thursday 27 December 2012.

The play is a real ensemble piece as we meet the members of the concert party, initially through the eyes of a new recruit Private Steven Flowers (Joseph Timms). We see the concert party's numbers, which are threaded through the entire play. And Flowers, who is young, naive and heterosexual, has to get used to a world which is rather gay. Not only gay, but full of the casual racial prejudice of the time.

To modern ears the racial attitudes are the most shocking, Nichols does not seek to excuse or explain, but points up the stupidity by having the officer in charge, Major Giles Flack (Angus Wright), completely ignoring the Malay staff (two silent roles played by Sadao Ueda and Chris Chan) who, it turns out, are in league with the insurgents and are the ones who remain, triumphant, at the end as the British go home.

But of course, what everyone will really take away from any performance of the play, is the character of Acting Captain Terri Dennis (Simon Russell Beale), the leading light of the concert party and an artiste who does quite a few numbers in drag. Russell Beale is as camp as a row of tents in this role, creating a character who is truly outrageous but with whom we can have sympathy, revealing the loneliness and indignation which fuels the character. But Russell Beale was also extremely funny, with superb comic timing and a lovely way with a double entendre.

Nichols writing enables this, by giving the characters moments when they talk to the audience directly. So we learn about the background of Sylvia (Davina Perera) the mixed race woman on the troupe who longs to go to England where her father came from, Sergeant Major Reg Dummond (Mark Lewis Jones) who has a number of shady deals going on, and of course Acting Captain Terri Dennis, who lets us see some of the perils and pains of being a gay man in that era whilst dressed not only in an array of frocks, but in some remarkable undergarments which provide the necessary sub-structure.

The forces concert parties were quite influential in a way, Nichols encountered both Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter during his tour of duty. And the role of Terri Dennis was based on the real life character of Barri Chatt. And it is the character of Dennis which brings real exoticism to the play, lifting the lid on a new world. In his memoirs Nichols talks about getting used to the new lingo, full of gay slang (polari), and something of this is included in the play.

The musical numbers weave in an out, each one taking a different model so that we see Terri Dennis as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, Noel Coward and Carmen Miranda. Russell Beale was brilliant in these, each a real tour de force with his Carmen Miranda being particularly memorable. But Noel Coward song about how we won the war and lost the peace was not only a brilliant piece of mimicry, but also a very pointed critique of contemporary politics.

Nichols (and composer Denis King), rather brilliantly incorporate the songs into the action, so that Flowers (Joseph Timms) and Sylvia Morgan (Davine Perera) have a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers type number just after they have fallen in love. And Timms displayed a fine light baritone voice and some very nifty footwork. The troupe's drill is turned into a point number, with some supremely rude double entendres in the lyrics and in the actions with the rifles. Perhaps the most poignant being a Flanagan and Allan number for two soldiers who had come to an arrangement and allowed a relationship to develop only for one to be killed shortly afterwards.

There is the feeling that the piece does not quite work towards the end, when Nichols has to insert some real plot and its revue style seems to limit him. You wonder whether the piece might have been stronger if it had been a little shorter and he had omitted the melodramatic anti-insurgent plot which involves the troupe acting as decoys and being attacked. So we are deprived of a real show-stopping finale, and the work ends on a rather down note. We must be content with memories of Russell Beale as Carmen Miranda.

Not everyone in the cast had a brilliant voice, and early reviews suggested that the performance might be patchy. But by the time we saw it, the cast were functioning as a strong ensemble, with individuals stepping in and out of the limelight with aplomb.

The small band played from the side of the stage, with Denis King's orchestrations giving a real concert-party feel to the musical numbers.

It is Simon Russell Beale's remarkable performance which will put bums on seats, but there is a great deal more in the play and Grandage and his team bring this out well.

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