Thursday 27th December 2012
‘Privates on Parade’ is the first in a season of plays to be staged by Michael Grandage at the Noel Coward Theatre. Written by Peter Nichols against the backdrop of the Malayan emergency of 1948 and first performed in 1977, it does not seem the most obvious choice of play. We were therefore quite surprised to learn that this is a revival of a production first put on at the Donmar Warehouse over ten years ago. So, is this play still fresh, and does it still have something to say?
In many ways the play’s strengths are also its weaknesses. The scenario is now a very familiar one – a concert party headed up by the outrageously camp Captain Terri Dennis, the stupidity of the British abroad, and the insanity of empire. These themes are instantly recognisable and ripe for satire, but they also require the play to work hard to say something new or amusing about them. This is not a subtle or sophisticated piece, and we can imagine that in the seventies, this distinctly unsanitised version of events would have been very fresh indeed, like its language and sexual shenanigans. Thirty-five years on, however, there is a feeling that the shock value doesn’t quite go far enough, or at least misses the mark. There is something missing, and whether that it is the context of historical events or something intrinsic to the play is hard to tell. Peter Nichols served in the Combined Services Entertainment with Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams just after the war in Singapore, and the play is based on real events and characters, so this is clearly a subject he knows about, but is it just a memoir, or something more?
This is not to say that the play is not entertaining. It is full of humourous moments, and Simon Russell Beale delivers a stand-out performance as Terri Dennis. He is going down a very well-trodden path indeed. Shades of every camp cliché in the book are present, from Quentin Crisp to Larry Grayson to Alan Carr. But in Simon Russell Beale’s hands these mannerisms and quips are truly delightful. With a perfectly judged performance, he never holds back from a limp-wristed gesture or a mincing walk, but he does it with a warmth and humanity, and comic timing that makes his character completely genuine and three-dimensional. Overall, the cast deliver good performances and do justice to the humour, although sometimes we found the characters difficult to tell apart. One of our favourite moments was the use of the swear-box, brought out as a deterrent to help the soldiers adjust to life on civvy street – one of the characters cannot help himself, and having lost almost all his change in a foul-mouthed tirade, ends up by slowly tossing the rest of his coins silently into the box. The satire on British Army life, particularly the hierarchy of the army is still sharp, and the transformation of the army drill into the song and dance number ‘Privates on Parade’ is still very funny, with its corny double-entendres and Captain Dennis’s insistence on ‘customising’ his uniform with extra short shorts and diamonte army stripes. The musical numbers help to heighten the satire of the situation and are wittily handled.
Ultimately though, we cannot help feeling that this play does not quite speak to us. Too radical to be a ‘museum piece’ of the seventies, and yet not quite radical enough. If Nichols were writing this piece today, it would rightly raise concerns about the apparently uncritical depiction of sexism, racism and homophobia (although the homosexuals probably get the kindest treatment). Which brings us on to another problem which has been raised about this play – the two silent indeterminately East Asian characters whose sole contribution to the play appears to be to serve the British characters and change the scenery. Amanda Rogers, who has also written about the recent controversy surrounding the casting of the RSC’s ‘Orphan of Zhao’, took the bold step of writing to Michael Grandage about these characters when she heard the play was going to be performed. Clearly, Grandage has made an effort to address this problem by giving us a sense that they are part of a bigger plan – he has them play cards over the coffin of one of the British soldiers before the interval when everyone else has gone, and at the end they are transformed into business-suited Malaysians, shaking hands in front of a backdrop of a modern city (Kuala Lumpur we presume?). We are not sure this really solves the problem, and if anything it reinforces another stereotype, of the wily and inscrutable oriental. And there is another cruel irony in this ‘celebration’ of modern Malaysia if you consider their current attitude to homosexuality.
Perhaps it is for another playwright to redress the imbalance in casting in the UK when it comes to ethnicity and gender, and to tell the other side of the story, but at the end of the day, a director also has choices to make about his material and we have to ask ourselves why Grandage chose this particular play – twice.