Privates on Parade, Noël Coward Theatre, London

Michael Grandage is not just an adroit director but also an astute programmer. His revival of Peter Nichols and Denis King’s 1977 play with songs, opening his West End season as it does in the pre-Christmas period (and 11 years to the day after his Donmar production of it starring Roger Allam), seems at once to offer an alternative to pantomime and, with a beefy man in drag and a succession of unsubtle double entendres, to continue the spirit of panto by other means. The setting, of a British military concert party in Malaya during the Emergency of
1948 is, however, a world away from panto fairy tales (oo-er). Nichols’s skill as a playwright is in pulling off a broadly similar achievement to that of his A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, namely to Trojan-horse profundity in through an ostensible structure of cheesy entertainment.

Simon Russell Beale knows that he is not just ludicrous when dragged up as Carmen Miranda or Marlene Dietrich, but a little implausible even in a tuxedo delivering a pastiche Noël Coward number. His character’s very style of gayness (he even swears, “Jessica Christ!”) is of an antiquated kind that collaborated with discrimination as much as it defied it. Yet what Beale also knows is that this out-of-step figure (a civilian given honorary military rank for service purposes) also turns out to be the viewpoint character. The fellow we begin by identifying with, newly arrived honourable innocent Stephen Flowers (Joseph Timms), becomes gradually assimilated by the army’s machinery and in particular by the preoccupations and prejudices of the unit’s commanding officer, a complacent muscular Christian. By the final scene, as the company board the ship back home, all wounded in one way or another after a terrorist attack, it is Beale’s Capt Terri Dennis who emerges as the real hero of the piece.

Virtually the entire company turn in performances that show a discreet awareness of hinterland for their characters and the play as a whole, from Angus Wright as the smug, drawling major to John Marquez as the Brummie corporal who is not gay as such but, as an acquaintance of mine once put it, is happy to help out in a crisis. As the title number almost puts it, these are privates to be proud of.

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