Privates on Parade
A Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company co-prodcution
The Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Privates on Parade is an easily misunderstood and underestimated play falling somewhere between Oh What a Lovely War and the TV series It Ain't 'Alf Hot, Mum with a dollop of Catch 22 and Round the Horn thrown in for good measure. Set in the late 1940s in Malaya, it stands up as well today as it ever did. Everything changes and it's all the same, as the French say.
Indeed, as Director Ian Brown points out in the programme, the Malayan 'Emergency' ' was a war that wasn't declared and what's going on in Iraq today is very similar. It was called an 'emergency' so that rubber planters could claim on their insurance cover (it says in the programme).
We see a group of mainly camp or at least homosexual military entertainers suffering under the lash of Sgt Major Reg Drummond, a fascist wide-boy ex-copper (Milo Mindbender sans charm and humour). Played perfectly (and nauseating it is) by Jeffrey Harmer, Reg (Regina to the lads) provides much of the plot (and a couple of subplots). But foreground, up big and blousy, is the background of the touring concert party, sweating in drag, dragging in a delicious line of one-liners and double entendres. And the music (words by Nichols, settings by Denis King) is fantastic. Pastiche after pastiche. Indeed 'Could you please inform us (did we win the war?)' is so perfectly Noël that I'm still not sure it isn't!
You will gather that I approve of this production. It is beltingly theatrical, wonderfully lit and well designed. The acting by a cast of twelve, many of whom play instruments, dance and sing, is very high class indeed. What's more, there is a real sense of ensemble which gives added realism to the whole play - quite a rarity these days. Having picked out Jeffrey Harmer for praise, I should add that Joe Alessi appears to thoroughly enjoy the big, big, campy, drag role of Acting Captain Terri Dennis - an intelligent, humane performance, the awful puns beautifully underplayed.
And Alan McMahon's Major Giles Flack is, again, superbly understated and believable (I was reminded of the WW1 judgement 'Lions lead by donkeys'). Flack is an innocent, intelligent yet foolish
But here's the point: Nichols took some existing stereotypes, introduced some new ones, and breathed life into all of them. These are characters with depth and Brown's direction often reveals the depth in throw-away gestures, sparkling eye contact, and canny stage craft.
My only reservation is that the cast wore radio mics, thus making what should have been a bog standard touring concert (and looked thus) sound like something from today's West End. Radio mics do tend to take the raw emotion out of a production at the best of times, and this bunch of talented thespians could surely have filled the Quarry with song without artificial aids. That aside, this is a treat that deserves to sell out night after night.
The audience loved the show. Go see it!
At WYP until 11th October
Reviewer: Ray Brown