On one level, it’s seldom a good thing when members of the audience are openly groaning at punchlines in a show. Then again, Privates On Parade seems to revel in the psychology of the style of humour found in Christmas cracker jokes. Rather than trying to elicit laugh-out-loud humour, the deliberate mediocrity unites a group of people, in this case soldiers in post-World War Two Southeast Asia, such that they agree on how lame the jokes are. There is a certain skill in writing these sorts of jokes in such a way that they are bad but not too bad, and can be understood by almost anyone. That there are so many in this show paradoxically demonstrates what a strong script (Peter Nichols) it has.
The show’s full title is Privates On Parade: A Play with Songs in Two Acts, which is precisely what it is, providing an interesting juxtaposition between the prevailing precarious situation in Southeast Asia at the time (not for nothing did the British armed forces retain a presence for years after VJ Day) and the task set before SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit, South East Asia) of providing entertainment for the troops. The inclusion of some of the variety acts that were performed for soldiers come across, after a while, as padding out the narrative a little.
This production has scored a winner in Simon Green as Terri Dennis, a stereotypically larger than life character who is undeniably camp, and proud of it, and respected by the majority of fellow troops. He has his reasons for remaining in the armed forces, being in close proximity to plenty of other men (ahem). The cast as a whole make the show highly credible – their apparent mistakes in an early scene, for instance, really did give the impression that this really was a rehearsal for a forthcoming touring production.
Some of the audience were more than slightly uncomfortable with various opinions expressed in the show: there is nothing to be gained in repeating them here. Sweeping generalisations by the likes of Dennis and Giles Flack (Callum Coates) about the indigenous population would be almost universally condemned today. I therefore deem the play a period piece of theatre, which does well to present the prevailing attitudes of the time. But if such views are outdated, a subplot in which Sylvia Morgan (Martha Pothen, making her professional theatrical debut in this production) suffers in more ways than one because of the words and actions of the temperamental Reg Drummond (Matt Beveridge) is quite timely, given the ongoing furore over previous incidents of harassment and bullying in the entertainment industry.
The choreography in the musical numbers is a pleasure to see, and appropriately increases in quality as the story continues – again, a believability factor is evident, inasmuch as that it could be reasonably assumed that dance moves and performances get progressively better over time. There are, perhaps predictably given the setting, moments of tragedy in amongst all the laughter, making the show much deeper than a mere comedy, albeit an award-winning one.
The pacing could have been somewhat faster. The show seems to plod along at times, proverbially strolling rather than striding (or even marching) with purpose. But, all things considered, this is a well-acted production, smoothly gliding between pleasure and poignancy with remarkable ease.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Set during the Malayan Emergency of the late 1940s, we follow the exploits of a song and dance unit during their
tour of South East Asia as they provide light entertainment for the British Army.
Private Steve Flowers is posted to join the small show, which is conceived by and very much starring the wonderfully flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis, who’s cross dressing antics are the talk of the barracks.
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Privates On Parade [DVD]
John Cleese (Actor), Denis Quilley (Actor), Michael Blakemore (Director)
CAST AND CREATIVES
Director – Kirk Jameson
Musical Supervisor – Nick Barstow
Design – Mike Lees
The Union Theatre presents
PRIVATES ON PARADE
By Peter Nichols
with music by Dennis King
Direction by Kirk Jameson
Musical Supervision by Nick Barstow
Designed by Mike Lees
Presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International Europe
22nd November – 17th December 2017