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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Privates on Parade

by Lizzie Loveridge

In fairyland, my dears, there's nothing new
True love, a song, a dance, a death or two
--- Captain Terri Dennis

Privates on Parade
Roger Allam as Captain Terri Dennis as Carmen Miranda
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The play with music, Privates on Parade thrilled the London stage in 1978 and in the 1980s was made into a feature film with John Cleese and Denis Quilley. London is enjoying a revival of some of Peter Nichol's oeuvre of work with last year's Passion Play, also from the Donmar Warehouse, and this year, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the New Ambassadors and the Comedy. Michael Grandage who is an Associate Director of London's Donmar Warehouse, last year directed an award winning musical, Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim.

Set in the late 1940s, Privates on Parade is about a company of men, incongruous members of the British Forces who are entertainers to the soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed in Malaysia. It is representative of that very British phenomenon, the low key musical which doesn't take itself too seriously. The play asks political questions about the presence of the British in the Far East during the sunset of Imperial splendour, as a new revolutionary movement sweeps China, under the leadership of the communist Mao Tse-tung. Many of the events of the play are autobiographical; Peter Nichols described his time in the army as "my university". The characters are based on real people. and the centre of the play is this group of military misfits and how they bond with each other—. what matters to them, their relationships at home and abroad.

The two central figures are Private Steven Flowers (James McAvoy), the new conscript from Swindon who has just arrived in Malaya and Captain Terri Dennis, (Roger Allam). He's an outrageously camp old queen, female impersonator and everyone's best friend who heads up SADUSEA (Sad You See?) Song and Dance Unit South East Asia. Sylvia Morgan (Indira Varma) is a beautiful Anglo-Indian young woman, left homeless after the death of her Welsh father, who is having an affair with Sergeant Major Reg Drummond (David Hounslow), a corrupt trafficker of stolen army property and a brutal lover. Major Flack (Malcolm Sinclair) is the commanding officer, a caricature of an army officer who attributes the world's evils to blasphemy and luxury. "Singing and dancing is all very well but it won't stop communistic Chinamen", he says in his clipped Home Counties accent, what you sound like if you try not to open your mouth as you talk.

Nichol's characterisation is superb. There is the geeky Eric Young-Love, (Daniel Tuite) a clean living, boy scout type with prickly heat, who tries to distance himself from the gay element. We feel the insecurity of these men, far away from home as Eric receives a "Dear John" letter. Corporal Len Bonny (ably played by Justin Salinger) is a natural comedian whose every other utterance is the "f" word and whose comic timing is brilliant. In a bittersweet moment Terri describes how he was never officially notified that his naval lover was killed in action but learnt about it a year later from a man in a bar. There is plenty of pathos to add an edge to the humour which culminates in the death of a man in the jungle on a futile exercise designed by the incompetent Flack.

Roger Allam has a hard act to follow, Denis Quilley's portrayal on stage and in the cinema, but he succeeds— his lines are brimming with delicately delivered sexual innuendo. He takes to his bar stool, legs astride, in "Danke Schön" like a professional. He sings and dances to the salsa rhythm in "The Latin American Way" with the contents of a medium sized fruit basket on his head. Allam''s Terri, in "full slap", is immensely likeable, a leader who knows how to support his troupe. I also liked James McAvoy's ingenue, who gains in confidence but becomes a less likeable person, and Indira Varma's girl who belongs nowhere. This is an ensemble piece with good performances all round.

The sets are dressing rooms or a stage but a scene at the end of the first act sees real rain pour down as if in the middle of the Monsoon. . Terri's stage costumes are opulent and his army shorts are very skimpy. The lighting effects are well executed to reflect the limitations of forces' productions. The Donmar's small space adds to the tacky feel of the entertainment, which is exactly right. Grandage' direction gives us the slightly brooding presence of the inheritors of this part of the British Empire in the form of two observing, black pyjamaed suited Asians, and in a striking final image, a slide projection of the skyscraper future of Singapore and Malaysia.

The music, played by a live band, is all derivative, many of the tunes well known but with original, witty and often pungent lyrics. "The Movie to End Them All" celebrates 1940s cinema and the dream women film stars. There are parodies of Dietrich and Noel Coward, of Carmen Miranda and British Music Hall turns, Flanagan and Allen. The choreography has an amateur edge to it, although there are also more finely executed dance numbers like the Astaire and Rogers dance with Steven and Sylvia. Also enjoyable is the number where five or six mismatched, khaki clad soldiers lie on their camp beds, nonchalantly synchronising the crossing and uncrossing of their ankles or rolling over onto their fronts. The title song is a highlight of the second act as the troupe drill with their rifles in an upbeat tongue in cheek look at life in the army. I shall be very interested to contrast this small space musical with the National Theatre's production of South Pacific in the Olivier which is from the same era, also set in the East and with a similar enemy.

Privates on Parade
Written by Peter Nichols
Music by Denis King
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Roger Allam
With: Justin Salinger, James McAvoy, Nigel Harman, Hugh Sachs, Daniel Tuite, Indira Varma, David Hounslow, Malcolm Sinclair, Wai-Keat Lau, Carl Wu
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Sound: Fergus O'Hare for Aura
Choreography by Scarlett Mackmin
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1732
Booking to 2nd March 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 12th December 2001 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2
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