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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Privates on Parade
Noel Coward Theatre    Winter 2012-2013

Drawing on his experience in an army entertainment unit in Malaya in the late 1940s (alongside John Schlesinger, Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams), Peter Nichols in 1977 wrote this loving salute to a band of military misfits who create a private haven of mutual support while, almost incidentally, entertaining the troops. 

Michael Grandage's production does full justice to all the comedy and music while capturing the warmth and sweet innocence of the men and their world more fully than any other version I've seen. 

A virginal young soldier is somehow assigned to this company, discovering that about half of them are gay and all are happily out of step with the military, led and lovingly mothered by an ageing queen (a bravura performance by Simon Russell Beale). The lad's eyes are opened, his minimal musical talents brought out and his virginity and heart taken by the one woman around. 

There are plot elements not just the boy's bittersweet romance, but a crooked soldier's dealings with local insurgents, the 'marriage' of a gay soldier and an ostensibly straight one, and a mad officer's determination to involve them in real action. But the heart of the drama and comedy lies in the mutually protective family these social outsiders create and in the fun they have (and share with us) putting on their shows. 

Peter Nichols' mode, which Michael Grandage exploits to the fullest, is not only to punctuate the action with musical numbers from the company's entertainments all done at precisely the not-quite-good-enough level to be fully enjoyable and believably amateur but repeatedly to blur the line between reality and show-within-the-show. 

Again and again realistic scenes imperceptibly morph into onstage comic or musical turns, a barrack room conversation about pin-ups turning into a song about movie stars and paving the way for a drag version of Marlene Dietrich, a love scene moving into a Fred-and-Ginger dance, or soldiers in close-order drill becoming a chorus line. 

It almost goes without saying that no opportunity for camp or bawdry is missed, no entendre left undoubled, no mention of organs, big parts or standing upright allowed to go by innocently.

What is more subtle, and ultimately quite moving, is Nichols' blend of the comic and serious, so that the most intimate moments pause to allow a gag to go by and the wildest comic and musical turns have an underlying reality in the men's fears or homesickness. 

Simon Russell Beale's role is so strong that actors in previous productions have completely run away with the show, and it is very much to his credit that he draws everything there is out of the character (In addition to Marlene he does a hilarious Carmen Miranda and a wicked Noel Coward, and also the wise and loving mother hen) while still leaving some room in our awareness for the other actors. 

Joseph Timms plays the newcomer through whose eyes we see much of what goes on, the actor fleshing out the character more, and more attractively, than his primarily structural function might suggest. Sophiya Haque lets us see all the girl's inherent niceness without denying her harder side, and Angus Wright skilfully walks the tightrope between absurdity and real dangerousness as the mad major.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Privates on Parade - Noel Coward Theatre 2012

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