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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PRIVATES ON PARADE
at Noel Coward Theatre

KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING
By SAM MARLOWE

  Simon Russell Beale and the SADUSEA company/ Ph: Johan Persson

When the Michael Grandage Company announced its first season, most excitement was generated by the star-studded company that the erstwhile artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse had assembled. Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Daniel Radcliffe, Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and Jude Law are all lined up; but first, we get a revival of Peter Nichols’ 1977 semi-autobiographical play with songs, starring the sensational Simon Russell Beale. And neither he nor Grandage’s production, comically capering and darkly disturbing by turns, disappoints.
 
The setting is post-war, colonial Malaya, and Private Steven Flowers (Joseph Timms) has been sent to join a military concert party. Virginal, naive, an awkward mix of shyness and arrogance, he encounters casual racism and ripe, ribald language among his fellow recruits. But there is also tenderness and camaraderie; and he gains an education in sex, loyalty and politics in a show that threads together camp musical numbers by Denis King like a gloriously gaudy, slightly frayed string of fake pearls.
 
Russell Beale is Acting Captain Terri Dennis, flamboyant, charming, unashamedly gay, sharp of mind and of tongue. Entertaining troupes beleaguered by Chinese Communist guerillas is a preferable occupation to panto in Clementina Attlee’s grim Britain; and he lights up the stage for both his military audience and for us. Whether he’s waspishly Coward-esque in a satirical patter song, dragged up and exuberant as a Carmen Miranda lookalike with a tropical fruit-salad of a headdress, or wrapping his tree-trunk, be-stockinged thighs around a chair back as he smoulders, Dietrich-style beneath a silver topper, he is captivating. He moves with startling elegance, sings in a rich baritone, and deploys a devastating charm.
 
But such delicious revelry, winningly delivered in Ben Wright’s choreography, is offset by piquant feeling. When Flowers confesses his sexual inexperience to Terri, there’s a gentleness and concern in his response that is unavoidably touching – and it is Terri, too, who deals with the fallout after Flowers discovers love and lust with the troupe’s one female performer, Eurasian dancer Sylvia (Sophya Haque). Also profoundly affecting is the love between Lance Corporal Charles Bishop (Harry Hepple), a gay nurse, and blunt, hitherto straight Brummie Corporal Lee Bonny (John Marquez) – a relationship quietly, yet utterly, devoted.
 
Meanwhile, a muted rage bubbles beneath the action. It’s there in the wordless exchanges of two silent servants, who tolerate the insulting behaviour of the British only for their descendants to be shown, in the last moments of Grandage’s staging, to have the final victory as they cement lucrative deals against a backdrop of burgeoning Far Eastern economic power. It’s there, too, lurking behind the weary acceptance of the zealous missionary sanctimony and of pompous Major Giles Flack (Angus Wright), his posturing laughable until it leads to fatal consequences; and it’s there in the implication that the British military presence has more to do with protecting tin mines and rubber plantations than with controlling Communist ambitions. The play has a meandering, episodic quality; occasionally you long for Nichols to bring his characters and ideas into sharper focus. But it is a heartfelt, quirkily appealing piece, cheeky, bittersweet and entirely disarming.

 


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