Thursday, 20 December 2012

Show us your Privates!

Madam Arcati and I trolled through the rain to go and see the much-anticipated opener for Michael Grandage's season of short-running plays at the Noel Coward Theatre - the "play with songs", Privates on Parade. We have both seen the film (with Dennis Quilley and John Cleese), and were curious how such a tongue-in-cheek satire would translate to the stage.

Of course, another main attraction was the prospect of seeing the multi-award-winning Simon Russell-Beale CBE (whose repertoire has over the years tended towards Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw rather than drag) donning the fishnets and Cuban heels to play the leading role of Acting Captain Terri Dennis, all dubious double-entedres and motherly queeniness. But "play it" he certainly does!

Brilliantly capturing the bittersweet and bizarre spectacle of a mincing theatrical queen somehow ending up in charge of a motley troupe of keen but naive (and largely gay) army entertainers, in the middle of guerilla warfare in the crumbling colonial outposts of Malaya, Mr Russell-Beale shines out as brightly as the sequins on his frocks. His set-pieces, uproariously "impersonating" Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda and even Vera Lynn, were pantomime perfection. Yet behind each and every one, the subtleties and sadness of the situation (the futility of the struggle to prop-up the British Empire, the corruption, the waste of young lives) filter through - not least in our favourite number, the show-stopper Could You Please Inform Us (Who It Was That Won The War?), in the style of Noel Coward.

The aforementioned army troupe - the "players" of the Song And Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA) - provided some excellent supporting campness, too (even if their vocal arrangements could probably do with a bit of polish). It is in the boys' individual back-stories that the pathos begins to unfold, to take the glitter out of the lurex a little. Joseph Timms is the play's pretty-boy hero Private Flowers, whose progress from "virgin soldier" to "career soldier" is both charming and chilling. At first it is the charms of the company's solitary female member, the half-Welsh half-Indian Sylvia (Sophiya Haque), for which he falls, but by the end, his first love is the British Army and a conventional life...

The unlikely (and ultimately doomed) relationship between the scent-wearing Charley (Harry Hepple) and the constantly-swearing - and still married - Len (John Marquez) provides waspish banter, sentimental moments and desperate tragedy in turn. The pathetic self-assurance of the geeky "Erica" (Brodie Ross), with his refusal to cope with the truth of his fiancee's betrayal, and the false bravado of the "straight man" of the group Kevin (Sam Swainsbury) are also beautifully played out.

In one of the best-written roles, the song-and-dance ensemble have to contend with a loony, bible bashing Major (played by Angus Wright with a much less madcap air than John Cleese but nonetheless subtly deranged) whose rabid desire to defend the Empire from the Commies creates far more danger than any of the jungle inhabitants. Of course, it is his intervention that directly destroys the carefully built-up cosiness of their little theatrical "bubble", and leads us to the story's emotion-tugging denouement. In fact, throughout the action, there is a dark side looming. The military camp's silent Asian attendants are obviously plotting subterfuge throughout. The soon-to-be-late unlamented bullying Sergeant Major (Mark Lewis Jones) is a wife-beater, a thief and a gun-runner, selling beautifully-made British armaments to the very guerillas whose insurgence his men are disastrously atempting to put down. There is definite sense that everyone is trying to run away from something (whether it is Sylvia's dreams of living in Britain, or Captain Dennis's warnings about the UK's growing persecution of the gays back home) - and showbiz is the only escape!

Despite its shocking moments, and its sometimes uncomfortably blunt exposure of the stupidity, racism, homophobia and arrogance of post-war British attitudes, this is definitely not a gloomy play. There's a musical duet between two ostensibly straight hunks about masturbation fantasies, a nude shower scene (the privates were definitely on parade, much to our delight!), lots of silly jokes, great songs, and as much camp humour as the Paul O'Grady Christmas Show, for gawd's sake!

This show provides more class in one or two of its carefully-delivered quips than in the whole of most of its theatrical competitors.

We loved it!

Privates on Parade - book today!


  1. I passed this theatre last night on the way to Meow Meow's Little Match Girl - I'm glad you enjoyed it - the reviews have been fab.

    On Sat I'm seeing Viva Forever with Grumpy - it looks like I got him a festive turkey :(

    Little Match Girl is very good by the way - think you'd enjoy it and they are doing tickets half price too - finishes Dec 30th xx

    1. I would rather go through another operation on my veins than bother to see "Viva Forever". Shame you don't bother blogging any more - I'd love to read your review! Jx

      PS If you can get tickets to "Privates on Parade", do - it is brilliant...

  2. Show us your privates

    You REALLY don’t want to see mine.

    1. You are sooooo right!

      And they can't sing.



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