Privates on Parade
A play with songs by Peter Nichols, with music by Denis King to lyrics by Nichols
Private Steven Flowers – Joseph Timms
Corporal Len Bonny – John Marquez
Acting Captain Terri Dennis – Simon Russell Beale
Flight-Sergeant Kevin Cartwright – Sam Swainsbury
Lance Corporal Charles Bishop – Harry Hepple
Leading Aircraftman Eric Young-Love – Brodie Ross
Sylvia Morgan – Sophiya Haque
Sergeant Major Reg Drummond – Mark Lewis Jones
Major Giles Flack – Angus Wright
Cheng – Sadao Ueda
Lee – Chris Chan
The Band: Jae Alexander (musical director & piano), Joe Pettitt (bass), James Gambold (percussion), Andy Gathercole (trumpet) and Steve Moss (clarinet, flute & alto saxophone)
Michael Grandage – Director
Christopher Oram – Set & Costume Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting Designer
Ben Wright – Choreographer
Nick Lidster & Terry Jardine – Sound Designers
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 12 December, 2012
Venue: Noël Coward Theatre, London
Peter Nichols’s play Privates on Parade is based on his experiences as a member of the Combined Services Entertainment troupe he joined while serving in the Army overseas in Malaysia in the late 1940s. CSE was the natural descendant of the wartime ENSA concert-parties that toured France, Burma, Germany and other trouble spots. Officially it was the Entertainments National Service Association, although was often referred to as “Every Night Something Awful” and included Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Noël Coward and Joyce Grenfell, although some performers were not always of that calibre, which led to a lowering of morale among the serving men and women. This subsequently encouraged talented service people to put on their own shows, such as Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Kenneth Connor, Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd.
The entertainers in Privates on Parade call themselves SADUSEA – Song & Dance Unit South East Asia – touring Singapore and Malaysia in the late 1940s as an assortment of what one character calls “men and queers” – plus a single girl of mixed race stranded after her Welsh father has died. Nichols encountered such as John Schlesinger, Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter and his characters are based on his fellow performers at the time, including the star of this show, one Acting Captain Terri Dennis (superbly played by Simon Russell Beale) who is based on Barri Chatt, who Nichols in his autobiography calls “a bohemian looking blonde … a dancer and drag artiste … his hair was dyed peroxide yellow, his eyebrows were plucked and pencilled in and all his other body hair shaved to baby smoothness.”
As well as being a talented performer, Dennis is a sort of mother-hen, an auntie figure, a confidant to whom the other boys can take their problems. Corporal Len Bonney’s every other word is a four-letter one beginning with F or C. The sergeant major, Reg Drummond, is as cruel as you would expect, involved in illegal flogging of army property, and in a relationship with Terri’s dancing partner Sylvia. The rest of the “men and queers” are under the guidance of the ineffectual Major Giles Flack. Life in SADUSEA is depicted through the eyes of new recruit Steven Flowers who has a lot to learn and his virginity to lose to Sylvia.
The play was originally presented in 1977 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Michael Blakemore, with Denis Quilley, Nigel Hawthorne and Joe Melia. Michael Grandage, who directs the current production, also staged it at the Donmar Warehouse in 2001. Privates on Parade was filmed in 1983 with Quilley and Melia repeating their roles and with John Cleese as Flack.
The play includes musical interludes woven into the plot performed by the SADUSEA company. They are mainly pastiches of 1940s’ tunes very skilfully written by Denis King with Nichols providing some hilarious lyrics. Beale does marvellous parodies of Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward, the latter in a song called ‘Could you please inform us’, along the lines of Coward’s own ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’. There are also memories in song of Flanagan & Allen and Vera Lynn and a marvellously outrageous routine, ‘The Latin American way’, recalling Carmen Miranda, in which Beale sports the flamboyant costume of the Portuguese-born star, complete with a tutti-frutti headpiece. The small band makes a big noise under Jae Alexander’s astute direction and turns in a musical treat.
Apart from the comedy element, the play also makes some serious points about the British abroad, imperialism and the rise of nations like Japan and China following World War Two. The cast also includes two (mostly silent) Asian servants who are waiting for their day and their turn to come. It is a brilliant mix of humour and pathos, camp silliness and the unstoppable feeling that ‘our boys’ must be entertained in even the direst circumstances before, as one character opines, the Chinese Communists take over.
The original production had a definitive cast, but the current staging offers talents every bit as good. John Marquez effs-and-blinds to great comic effect; Mark Lewis Jones pins down the rough side of Reg; Angus Wright is hilarious as the bluff, hearty but blinkered Flack; and Joseph Timms’s Flowers displays his virginity with shining dignity until he meets Sylvia, a nicely worldly-wise performance by Sophiya Haque. However, it is Simon Russell Beale who wipes the stage with his unbelievably camp but incredibly entertaining carryings-on. What an amazingly versatile actor Beale is. Similarly Michael Grandage, whose first production this is for his new company, is heading for more greatness in a season that has everything going for it.
- Privates on Parade is at the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2 until Saturday 2 March 2013
- Monday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinees Wednesday & Saturday 2.30
- Tickets 0844 482 5141