Where’s the best place to set a play about enduring British values? Malaysia in the late 1940s, as it turns out. Making a delicious song ‘n’ dance — literally — out of attitudes to class, gender, sex and patriotism, Peter Nichols’ 1977 “Privates on Parade” is set in a troupe entertaining British troops in Southeast Asia fighting against the communist insurgents. Beneath the welter of double-entendres and Simon Russell Beale’s look-back-in-angora star turn, Michael Grandage’s beautifully tragicomic production sneaks up on audiences unawares to deliver a surprise punch.
This is the backstager with an idea in its head. With its plethora of comic types surrounding new arrival Private Stephen Flowers (fresh and sweetly naive Joseph Timms,) it would be easy to make this slice of history into easy laugh/easy target caricature. But the string of amusing numbers and routines for the men isn’t just entertainment. They’re a commentary and reflection upon the world in which the men find themselves. Beneath the story of a young soldier’s social and sentimental education, Nicholas is nailing traditional British thinking.
To achieve this, Nichols stuffs the evening with more one-liners than you can shake a rifle at. Chief among them is the near constant stream for Acting Capt.Terri Dennis (Beale), a man whose make-up is less than standard military. Putting the camp into, well, the camp — “You dare speak to an officer like that and I’ll scream the place down” — Beale has a field-day.
As the experienced theatrical in the troupe, he is not only its director, he’s also the star turn delivering marvelously ludicrous and effortlessly droll impersonations of everyone from Marlene Dietrich and British Forces’ matronly sweetheart Vera Lynn to Noel Coward.
Armed with Denis King’s top-notch musical parodies and lips ever-ready to purse, Beale’s wonderfully timed reveling in the role is seriously infectious. It is, however, considerably deepened by the world-weariness and the sense of bitter experience he brings to it. His hints at the private difficulties of being publicly homosexual in the 1940s, when it was entirely illegal, is all the more powerful for being suggested rather than overplayed.
He’s balanced by wonderfully gruff, upstanding Angus Wright as Major Flack, an officer who’s never had an opinion of which he wasn’t convinced. Wright plays him steadfastly as a man never likely to grasp the concept of listening. But, as with the entirety of the company, the comedy is not at the expense of truth. Flack’s dyed-in-the-wool patriotism and faith is as serious to him as it is funny to the audience.
In the darker second half, Flack leads the troupe absurdly into grave danger. Friendships, opportunities and lives are lost. Eschewing sentimentality, Grandage’s depiction of the men’s now painfully fragile camaraderie, quietly suggested in the hushed unison singing of the final song, is profoundly touching.
Set and costume designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Paule Constable work in extraordinary harmony to suggest an almost sepia-toned production. Constable pours both heat and, crucially, nostalgia onto Oram’s on-stage/off-stage single set, its characters dressed in muted period colors and bathed in shafts of light cutting through the haze.
With an entire world so effectively caught, the actors are given an ideally controlled space in which to seize their opportunities. Wholly convincing as a unit, they pull off the near-impossible trick of looking as amateurish as they should while being wittily executed to laugh-aloud effect.
Accompanying Beale is a genuine ensemble, albeit one with a wonderfully blunt stand-out turn from John Marquez as a man whose life is changed by the army forever in ways he would never have imagined. His trajectory cunningly illuminates everyone’s attitudes to almost every social and political concern of the era. And, as the final image suggests, maybe also of the present.
Initial local reviews could barely be stronger. As the opener for Grandage’s eponymous new production company, it couldn’t be more auspicious.