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Review Round-up: Critics inspect Grandage's Privates

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The first of Michael Grandage's glittering West End season, Privates on Parade opened to press last night (10 December 2012).

Simon Russell Beale plays the cross-dressing Captain Dennis whose performances of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda form the centrepiece of Peter Nichols' award-winning 1977 comedy set against the murderous backdrop of the Malaysian campaign at the end of the Second World War.

The production is directed by Michael Grandage, and runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 March 2013.

Michael Coveney

…the show is played out in a dilapidated grey mansion designed by Christopher Oram and beautifully it by Paule Constable that signals a changing landscape back home…Russell Beale's glorious, pigeon-plump Terri is a much softer reading than either Denis Quilley's brawny original or Allam's fruity swaggerer. His innate kindness gleams through the am-dram exterior of conspiratorial winks and statuesque poses…Private Steven Flowers, touchingly done by Joseph Timms…Another key friendship develops between John Marquez's hard-bitten, hard-swearing Corporal Len Bonny and Harry Hepple's Lance Corporal Charles Bishop, charmingly summarised in their Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen tribute song. It's what makes the play finally so moving, still, the camaraderie of war embedded in the threatened cultural life of its pointless protagonists.

Michael Billington

…Russell Beale superbly suggests both the solitude and the spiritual generosity that lurks behind the character's ostentatiously theatrical facade. Angus Wright also treats the Bunyan-quoting Major Flack, who sends a number of the men to a pointless death, not as a cartoon caricature but as someone driven by his own brand of religious fervour. Sophiya Haque's Eurasian Sylvia has the pathos of the permanently exploited and John Marquez as a Brummie corporal and Harry Hepple as his devoted friend provide a touching example of the way the armed services discreetly sanctioned gay partnerships. The play is both a vivid record of a slice of showbiz history and politically astute; and the masterstroke of Grandage's production comes at the climax when Chris Chan and Sadao Ueda, who as Asian servants have been blithely patronised or ignored, are as spectacularly transformed as Christopher Oram's design. The whirligig of time, Grandage implies, brings in its revenges.

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

…Grandage’s outstanding production is also blessed with an irresistible star performance from Simon Russell Beale…With his bottle-blond hair and fleshy face leering delightedly at every conceivable double entendre, Russell Beale is superbly entertaining, and offers brilliant turns in the show’s delightful pastiche songs…But this great actor discovers emotional depth, too, laying bare both the character’s loneliness and the generosity of spirit lurking beneath his bitchy banter and promiscuity. And Angus Wright is hilarious as the commanding officer…almost all the performances are outstanding, with especially engaging work from Joseph Timms who comes over as a wry self-portrait of Nichols, and Sophiya Haque as the vulnerable Eurasian girl he falls for. Gloriously entertaining and often deeply touching, this is a terrific start to what promises to be a thrilling West End residency for M Grandage and Co.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

…Nichols is a playwright who strikes me as underrated…Nothing proves more pungent than the consequences of patronising the local servants – something Grandage conveys in a delicious coup. Russell Beale is wickedly camp, at times resembling a pantomime dame. His Terri is a shrewd study of exuberant amateurism. But his performance is full of nuance and humanity. Also impressive are Sophiya Haque as Flowers’s entrancing lover, Sam Swainsbury as a lustful flight sergeant and John Marquez as a Brummie accordionist who swears like a shipful of drunken sailors. The show needs a small amount of tightening, and some will find it dated, perhaps even a period piece. But Privates on Parade is a lovely picture of the ways in which the ordinary business of military life is intertwined with agonies and absurdities.

Libby Purves
The Times

…The big numbers, done with artful amateurism by Russell Beale’s Captain Terri…the pleasure of watching this actor is never one-dimensional. Subtly, he indicates that Terri’s is the pre-Wolfenden campery which, not allowed openly to love or mourn, laughed at its own pain and loss with defensive bravery. He expresses Terri’s mournful gentleness beautifully… (a menacingly nasty performance by Mark Lewis Jones as the RSM running local rackets and tarts)…Angus Wright’s performance is a joy: tall, crisp, he strides around with swagger-stick and jocose vigour like a Peter Snow gone bad. His bellicosity, and prudish attempt to warn young Flowers about catching “les maladies d’amour” from Eurasian girls, make him a neat polar opposite of the kindly sexual realist Captain Terri. So a fine quality kick-off for Michael Grandage’s new company, both in the comedy and a suddenly shocking darkness reminiscent of Oh! What a Lovely War…

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