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A CurtainUp London London Review
Privates on Parade

Come in if you’re pretty! — Captain Terri Dennis
Privates on Parade
Simon Russell Beale as Captain Dennis playing Dietrich
(Photo: Johan Persson)
To open his new company and the season at the Noël Coward Theatre, Michael Grandage revives his production from the Donmar Warehouse in 2001 of Peter Nichol’s 1977 Privates on Parade now with Simon Russell Beale as Captain Terri Dennis. Based on Peter Nichol’s experiences on National Service in India, Malaya and Hong Kong, the show is as outrageous as the entertainment for the squaddies was tacky. Peter Nichols tells us, “At least I’d learnt that empires were a bad idea.”

Simon Russell Beale dominates with wonderful peroxide curls and satin corset in this part which allows any in the audience not immediately smitten by the camp captain, by the end of the play, to love the flamboyant leading star of the concert parties for his humanity and compassion. Every male name is converted by him to a female equivalent and, using this format, he originally blasphemes, “Jessica Christ” he says.

Much of what I said about the 2001 production holds ( review). The difference is that the Noël Coward is a larger theatre, with a traditional proscenium arch whereas at the Donmar the audience sit on three sides giving a more immersive experience.

This play harks back to the days of the British Empire, crumbling stone set and grimy windows, and forward to the glass towering skyscraper, business affluence in the Singapore of today as finally the Chinese silk suited servants become sharp suited businessmen. But there is also some implied comment on the sexuality tolerated abroad and in show business even in the 1940s, and the way the British allow for eccentricity, whether it’s the overt gays of the concert party or their nemesis, the eccentric evangelist Major Flack (an opinionated and occasionally overstated Angus Wright).

School leaver Private Steven Flowers (Joseph Timms), whom we saw in Linguaa Franca, a play set ten years after Privates on Parade, is the character based on the author. It is through his eyes that we see the other characters, John Marquez’s foul mouthed but affable Midlands Corporal Bonny, the corrupt ex-policeman, Sergeant Major Reg Drummond (Mark Lewis Jones) and the only woman in the troupe, Indo-Welsh Sylvia Morgan (Sophiya Haque) who is a victim of domestic violence.

This is Simon Russell Beale’s night and his impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, the gorgeously extravagant Carmen Miranda and Noël Coward have to be amateurish to be authentic. We really enjoyed it when, clad in blue frilly knickers, “Dietrich” is carried horizontally by the men. There are flashes of rather fine, spray tanned male derrières all round.

The Michael Grandage Company has a simple and accessible pricing policy for its 15 month reign in the West End; £57.50, £27.50 and £10 seats in the gallery and more at £10 available on the day from the Box Office.

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

Starring: Simon Russell Beale, Angus Wilson
With: John Marquez, Joseph timms, Sam Swainsbury, Harry Hepple, Brodie Ross, Mark Lewis Jones, Sadao Leda, Sophiya Haque, Chris Chan
Designed by Christopher Oram
Lighting: Paule Constable
Sound: Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine for Autograph
Choreographer: Ben Wright
Musical Director: Jae Alexander
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5140
Booking to 2nd March 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th December 2012 performance at The Noel Coward Theatre, 85-88 St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4AU (Tube: Leicester Square)

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • S.A.D.U.S.E.A.
  • Les Girls
  • Western Approaches
  • Things We Used To Do
  • Lucky – Nellie and Miss Jane
  • Black Velvet
  • Better Far
  • The Prince of Peace
Act Two
  • Entr’Acte
  • Could You Please Inform Us
  • Privates On Parade
  • The Latin American Way
  • Sunnyside Lane
  • Sunnyside Lane (Reprise)
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