Review: Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre
Seven years ago, Schiller was all over Shaftesbury Avenue. Not once, but twice, thanks to Phyllida Lloyd’s Mary Stuart, originally at the Donmar, and Michael Grandage’s Don Carlos, down from the Sheffield Crucible. I’ll not get golden-ageist about it – though having just read Michael Codron’s biography, it’s tempting – but that’s borderline unimaginable today. The West End has shrivelled into its shell.
Sure, we had the short-lived farce free-for-all and a handful of musicals that have worked to conceal the overwhelming mediocrity of its dramatic output, but what, really, has the habitual theatregoer had to chew on in the West End? Long Day’s Journey Into Night and transfers from the Royal Court and Chichester excepted, only stodgy Trevor Nunn revivals and classic plays with the safety catch secured.
Alright, alright; Peter Nicholls is a world away from Schiller and his 1977 semi-autobiographical comedy Privates on Parade has its fair share of quaint sentiment and outmoded moments, but at least Michael Grandage’s production, the first of a fourteen month West End season, fully goes for it.
First among equals on that front is Simon Russell Beale as Acting Captain Terri Dennis. He’s the actor-manager star of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA), a ramshackle bunch with their castonets fixed. Here, he’s tarted up for a Marilyn Detriech routine; there, a fruity Carmen Miranda number and still elsewhere, slickened for a diction-testing ditty a la Noel Coward. To see Russell-Beale and his toffee-apple frame vivaciously sending himself up is always a delight. There’s a glint of mischief in his eyes, almost flirtatious, and his throwaways are second to none. He’s always cheekily undermining the plucky amateurism of these shows with a knowingly half-hearted gesture and savouring every double-entendre, no matter how spurious.
But it’s off-stage and out-of-corset that Russell Beale is at his best. Sure, he sidles up to SADUSEA’s newest recruit, preppy Private Flowers (Joseph Timms), but his Dennis is a tender heart in a regimented world. The way he puts his arm around Sophiya Haque’s Slyvia, pregnant and paid off by Flowers, and guides her offstage with gentle indignation is quietly devastating.
Because, for all that Grandage delivers a slightly nostalgic hoot, this is a production with firm foundations. It smartly conveys the political edge, picking at the scab of extant British imperialism in all its pomposity, largely through Angus Wright’s blustery Major Flack. Grandage’s most significant touch comes at the end, when the two pointedly silent Malaysians, co-opted into service, finally shake hands in front of a towering, beaconing Singapore skyline.
Grandage is a king of restraint; never over-stressing a point. That quality brings out the empathy in Nicholls’ play. Harry Hepple and John Marquez as Corporals Bishop and Bonny have a duet as a married couple – an echo of their own demure, private relationship. Grandage has them trot tiny steps across the stage, arm on shoulder. Before the end of the show, ambushed by native rebels, only one will remain alive. It’s an unshowy, dignified and absolutely pinpoint piece of direction.
That spirit runs throughout Privates on Parade – from Christopher Oram’s characteristically atmospheric set to Paule Constable’s superbly textured lighting – and it’s this refusal to compromise for the commercial sector that sets it apart from so much in the West End.
Photograph: Johan Persson