PRIVATES ON PARADE
Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theatre
No easy task, stepping into the stilettos previously worn by Denis Quilley and Roger Allam. But Simon Russell Beale is a singer, and has danced in drag before, if you count his delightful Duchess for the Royal Ballet's Alice in Wonderland.
Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade is based on his own experience with a troupe in Combined Services Entertainment. There is much fun to be had with the songs, dances and the magic, but there is a darker undercurrent which has to do with the end of Empire, insurgents and the prosperity that independence will bring to the native population.
Russell Beale has a ball with the frocks, the frou-frou and the camp badinage – buxom, flirty and full-lipped he has a touch of the Mrs Fox [Pam Cundell] about him. His Noel Coward number is perhaps the finest, witty, acerbic and impeccably delivered. But he is the figurehead of a very fine ship – the "outré establishment" of SADUSEA is manned by a variety of military personnel: Mark Lewis Jones is excellent as the sadistic ex-copper, Joseph Timms is the innocent abroad [Nichols himself, perhaps] and Brodie Ross plays the conjuror and butt of many jokes, Eric Young-Love. Terri Dennis doesn't have a monopoly of the best numbers; there's a strangely moving Flanagan and Allen duet from Harry Hepple and John Marquez as an ill-matched but loving couple. Angus Wright is superb as the blinkered officer in charge, a Bible on his desk, a snapshot of his wife between its pages. And there's a touching performance from Sophiya Haque as the Indian/Welsh girl who's the only female in this troupe. There's a lovely moment when the Black Velvet number segues into Greensleeves on her wind-up gramophone. Chris Chan and Sadao Ueda are the native servants who eavesdrop on briefings, play cards on the Union Flag-draped coffin, and appear at the end in immaculate Singapore suits ...
The band is tucked away stage left. The musical numbers are often fantasy rather than part of the SADUSEA stage show, and in this production they are allowed to grow out of the realistic action, rather than flagged with lighting changes or whatever. The set, massive [?] concrete structure with corrugated iron shutters at the back [that door has graced many productions, I think], is effectively lit, and there's a torrential downpour, though the ablutions are offstage.
Not the first time Grandage has revived this very enjoyable "play with songs" – the Donmar production in 2001 [with Allam in drag] was his too. Some of the lines, the gags, the cultural references have not worn well – who now remembers Churchmans – and Russell Beale wisely resists the temptation to get a laugh on every line.
But the warm heart and the uncomfortable truths of the piece are beautifully put across in this, the first of what promises to be an impressive Grandage season on St Martin's Lane.