In this West Yorkshire Playhouse/Birmingham Repertory Theatre production Privates on Parade, now just over 30 years old, proves as entertaining and relevant as ever. Peter Nichols’ wit and acute observation obviously have much to do with this, but there are other reasons, too. In 1977 the action was already deliberately dated, even nostalgic, and Sarah Travis’ inventive musical direction, using versatile actor/instrumentalists, brings extra freshness to this production.
Privates on Parade is set in Malaya during the 1948 emergency. S.A.D.U.S.E.A. (the Song and Dance Unit, South East Asia) brings a new meaning to army camp and much of the fun derives from young Private Steven Flowers’ attempts to understand the group dynamic and from the unit’s performances of pastiches of Carmen Miranda, Marlene Dietrich and so on. More serious themes of romance, rites of passage, gun-running, corruption and terrorist attacks are seamlessly integrated into the concert party follies.
Ian Brown’s sympathetic production refuses to overplay the grotesque and brings out the warmth and humanity of the play admirably. Perhaps the earlier off-stage scenes would benefit from a little more pace and attack – even a soldierly willingness to go over the top – but the closing scenes are surprisingly moving and the concert party numbers are staged with considerable style. With music by Denis King, the songs are precise and amusing parodies and some, like “The Little Things We Used to Do”, combine considerable charm with saucy doubles entendres.
As Acting Captain Terri Dennis Joe Alessi is less outrageous than some of his predecessors in the part, but all the more believable for that, and he negotiates everything from Carmen Miranda’s monster fruit-bowl head-dress to Noel Coward’s ultra-clipped delivery (in the wickedly accurate “Could You Please Inform Us”) with equal aplomb. He also brings out the sad sweetness of the character’s relationship with the solitary woman, Sylvia Morgan (Maria Lawson, with an accent trembling delightfully between Bombay and Cardiff).
David Ricardo-Pearce gauges Steven’s innocent priggishness perfectly and Alan McMahon as the C.O. assembles the epitome of Englishness, an unflagging appetite for clichés and a large pair of cymbals into an inspired comic performance. However, Privates on Parade is very much an ensemble piece, with the cast of 11 playing a total of 22 instruments in addition to acting/singing/dancing duties.
Mark Bailey’s designs help to create a thoroughly integrated production, with the action played out on an old-fashioned concert party stage and musicians scattered picturesquely to either side.