It Ain’t Half Fun, Mum!

Simon Russell Beale - "a joy from start to finish."

Simon Russell Beale – “a joy from start to finish.”

Title:                         Privates On Parade

Author:                    Peter Nichols

Director:                  Michael Grandage

Theatre:                   Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane

Major Players:        Simon Russell Beale, Joseph Timms, Angus Wright

Out Of Five?            4.5

First produced back in 1977, Privates On Parade makes a welcome return to the West End as the first production of Michael Grandage’s residency at the Noel Coward Theatre.  And it’s set the bar extremely high for the rest of the season.

Set in Malaya in 1946 when the British were fighting the Communist insurgency from China, Peter Nichols’ play with music follows the adventures and growing maturity of Private Flowers (Joseph Timms), a new recruit to a travelling entertainment group led by flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis (Simon Russell Beale).  Initially a wide eyed innocent, Flowers soon comes to learn that there is more to being a man than just wearing a soldier’s uniform.

It must have been strong stuff in its day.  The post-war period would have been within living memory for most, if not all, of the audience and the language from the very outset is what you would expect from its army setting.  Homosexuality had only been legalised for the over 21s some ten years before and being gay was socially unacceptable, so showing a concert troupe comprising mainly gay men – some overtly so, others not – would have been both challenging and brave in the late 70s.

Not so today – which is where the play shows its age.  But it does mean that the cast have the opportunity to delve deeper into the characters and move them away from being mere caricatures.  And it hasn’t lost its authenticity – it’s based on Nichols’ own experience in National Service – and, more interestingly, its relevance.

We learn through letters from the soldiers’ families that people at home aren’t too concerned about what’s happening in Malaya: it’s far away and they have bigger worries, like rationing and re-building the country after the war.  And despite today’s media bringing us closer to current conflicts, our home front is still primarily concerned with domestic issues.  Entertainment for the troops is still as important now as it was in the late 40s, although nowadays we send out big names like David Beckham and Katherine Jenkins to maintain morale.

Despite its more serious themes and some sinister undertones, courtesy of the two native servants who convey menace while hardly moving a facial muscle, Privates On Parade is still a hugely entertaining show.  The audience often doubles as the military audience watching the concert party who, if anything, are sometimes too good!  They sing well, dance elegantly and tell some truly cringe-worthy jokes.

The star turn is, without question, Simon Russell Beale as Terri Dennis, the leader of the concert party.  He is a joy from start to finish and his set pieces – he impersonates Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda (all in drag, of course) and Noel Coward – are the highlights of the show.  He revels in the gorgeous costumes and is brilliantly funny.  And his Noel Coward is wonderfully accurate.  He’s as camp as a row of tents, milking all the double entendres for all they’re worth – but there is more to his character than that. He’s caring and understanding, firstly with new recruit Flowers and then his discarded girlfriend.

The other performance of note is Angus Wright as the Major, the nominal commanding officer.  He’s swallowed the propaganda manual whole, repeating it at every opportunity and, with no understanding of the men in his command, he is dangerously ignorant of the situation they are all in.  It’s a well-judged performance, with elements of both Blackadder Goes Forth and more than a hint of John Cleese in his one and only dance routine.

And, while I could have wished for more of a Brummie accent from Corporal Len Bonney (John Marquez) who’s impoverished origins in Smethwick were frequently mentioned, the rest of the troupe all turned in good performances.

In case you’re wondering, Privates On Parade was preceded by It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot Mum which was, by comparison, a much softer version of much the same story.  It’s easy enough to find the TV series on DVD, but revivals of Peter Nichols’ play are much harder to come by, so grab the chance while you can.

This review is now available to download as a podcast at http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984

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