Privates on Parade
By Peter Nichols
Directed by Michael Grandage
Set Design by Christopher Oram
Simon Russell-Beale (Captain Terry Ellis)
Chris Chan (Lee)
Sophiya Haque (Sylvia Morgan)
Harry Hepple (Lance Corporal Charles Bishop)
Mark Lewis Jones (Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond)
John Marquez (Corporal Len Bonny)
Brodie Ross (Leading Aircraftman Eric Young-Love)
Sam Swainsbury (Flight-Sergeant Kevin Cartwright)
Joseph Timms (Private Steven Flowers)
Sadao Ueda (Cheng)
Angus Wright (Major Giles Flack).
This is the first production of five by The Michael Grandage Company, all of them directed by Michael Grandage, each with a major star leading the company. Simon Russell Beale does the honours in Privates on Parade, playing Acting Captain Terry Ellis, and he is fresh from playing Timon of Athens at the National Theatre.
Privates on Parade was written in 1977, in which year it won the Olivier award for best new comedy. It’s based on Peter Nichol’s own experience in an Army Entertainment unit (or concert party) in Malaya after World War Two during the Malayan emergency. Nichols was in a unit with Kenneth Williams, Stanley Baxter and John Schlesinger. Not a lot of competition for lead roles then.
The immediate comparison is to Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s long running TV sitcom, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Perry and Croft’s comedy started on TV three years earlier in 1974, and was set in India and Burma in the months between V-E day and V-J day in 1945. It’s also about a concert party with a prominent musical drag act. Perry had, like Nichols, performed in such a concert party. The sitcom ran for eight seasons, so was running before, and during the run of Privates on Parade. Bob Spiers, who directed some episodes of the sitcom, and who also directed our Grapevine One video series, had a long discussion about Perry and Croft with me. As he had also directed Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers we were discussing the ultimate British sitcom, and both of us agreed on Dad’s Army as the pinnacle. So my admiration for Perry and Croft is extremely high, and while It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was never as good as Dad’s Army, it had its moments, especially earlier on. The result is that I approach Privates On Parade with a somewhat prejudiced eye. It had the accolades, it’s real theatre by a real playwright … but is it actually as entertaining as its lowly popular sitcom predecessor? There’s no suggestion of character or story similarity … though necessarily there’s the officer, the sergeant major, the native servants (very different, with the Indians comically loyal on TV, and the Malayan Chinese definitely spitting in the soup on stage), the drag queen, the innocent new arrival, the upper class chappie, the swearing oik. In the TV programme it’s Melvin Hayes in the drag role, as Gloria, a corporal. In Privates on Parade, it’s Captain Dennis … older, more sympathetic and more rounded as a character, though both like to do themselves up in a fruity hat as Carmen Miranda, but maybe that was a universal concert party staple.
Then you factor in the 1983 movie version of Privates on Parade also scripted by Peter Nichols, with John Cleese as Major Flack, Dennis Quilley as Captain Dennis, Michael Elphick as the Sergeant Major, and Joe Melia as Len Bonny, directed by Michael Blakemore and produced by George Harrison. It’s an entertaining film, good, but not ‘fantastic.’ The lines stay close to the play too.
The theatrical version is the best version. It’s about a ramshackle entertainments unit, so theatre is its natural medium. More important is the balance between the two stories.
The front story to me is the comedy and interaction within the unit. It involves the relationships with Sylvia, the lone woman, first with Sergeant Major Reg Drummond and then the new arrival, Steven Flowers. Sylvia, as a “half-caste” of Welsh-Indian parentage joins the Chinese servants in being the receptacle of the solid racism of the place and time.
The back story, or other story, is the war / insurgency story, centred on the Holy Joe, Major Giles Flack; Drummond’s gun running operation, and the two inscrutable Chinese servants. To me that’s the back story, but the realism of film pulls it into equal prominence, or greater prominence, so it becomes the front story. Casting John Cleese as the major in the film cemented that, for he was then at the height of his fame.
The stage play puts the theatrical old queen, Acting Captain Teri Dennis, at the front, and this is as it should be. Necessarily, the action stuff is off stage, and the balance of the two stories is completely different on stage, and the musical numbers live are in their natural setting. In short, the stage play beats the film hands-down. When I got home from the play, I flicked through the DVD of the film and the only part that stands out in the film’s favour is the Sergeant Major, and that’s not performance especially, but that the medium of film favours that part because the plot related to him is more dramatically realized. No one in this fine stage ensemble need fear the competition from the film cast … and Angus Wright as Major Flack is equally as impressive as John Cleese was.
We were seated in the Grand Circle, not the highest point, but already dizzily high. That had the advantage of looking down on the first-rate choreography and stage blocking of the play’s musical and dance numbers.
Centre of programme picture
Captain Dennis is a great part, and such a contrast to Timon of Athens, where Simon Russell Beale already had two dramatically different appearances as the smoothly shaved Timon as businessman philanthropist, and as the crusty old misanthrope after he loses his money. He had a third such totally different appearance in this play. I thought he wiped the floor with the film portrayal, but that’s not a criticism of the film, so much as that his part was conceived as theatre. There’s a lot of subtlety involved in the musical numbers. The ballet is supposed to be naff and pretentious, and it’s hard to carry off such a double effect on stage. Things go wrong in the rehearsals of the music, and he has to manage to sing well, while doing hissed asides and grimaces.
The other part with an exhausting number of costume changes is Acting Lieutenant Sylvia Morgan (Sophia Haque), and she also stands out for the range of her acting … it’s a skilfully-crafted part in the script and she gets every possibility out of it.
The music, with live band, was all excellent, though one thing the film did better was to have the band in view in rehearsals, reacting to the action. They were way up high and stage left, and from our side of the balconies, they were completely unseen. No doubt from the stalls and the other side of the theatre they could be seen … we got enough of a glimpse as they leaned over in the curtain call to see they were all in costume.
The script requires Corporal Len Bonny to eff and blind with abandon for comic effect. I said in the review of Jerusalem that it had the highest theatre count for the word ‘c*nt” (asterisk is for Google searches, not for fear of typing it). I suspect this play beats it in sheer number, but because it’s used for comic effect here, they don’t fall as easily and naturally as they do in the Jerusalem script. Perhaps that’s because in 1948, and in 1977, the use of ‘f*ck’ and ‘c*nt’ every other word denoted a total oik, while in 2012 it does fall more into general speech. Naked men (“privates” on parade) is part of the script and executed smoothly and naturally with no prurient “Hey we have nudity!” about it.
It’s an entertaining play, in a first-rate production which augurs well for the rest of the Grandage season (we have tickets for the lot).
A little more on the war story. Nichols portrays the deep racism of the British in Malaya throughout. The assumption is that the servants can’t understand a thing being said in front of them, and the attitudes to Welsh-Indian Sylvia are deeply racist. Nichols was there in 1948 and I believe fully that he accurately represents British attitudes with only a smidgeon of comic addition. I recall at how a British grammar school in the 1960s the masters would openly compare any bad behaviour to “behaving like a (write in your favourite ex-Imperial racist stereotype)”.
At the end, we see the two Chinese servants in smart suits surveying the skyscraper skyline of modern Singapore. It’s an important moment, but I’d dispute it. I did a political studies option on War & International Crisis, and a major aspect was the British results in Malaya in comparison to first the French, then the Americans in Vietnam. Malaya is allegedly the textbook example of successful counter-insurgency, so that it wasn’t a case of the ex-terrorists becoming the capitalist rulers (just for a change). Whatever, it’s a lovely ironic ending to the play.
A lot of smoking. In the context of the army in 1948, and the story, it was all required by the plot.
I drone on about this, and the Noel Coward Theatre is well-situated and has a deep stage and a good size. Like every old West End theatre, the seats are cramped, the steps nasty, and the public areas are like the Black Hole of Calcutta (while we’re on the British Empire) in the intervals. When you compare the spacious areas in 1970s provincial theatres of a similar capacity (with their properly-sized and spaced seats, adjacent car parks, and adequate loos), you have to say London really needs a modern commercial theatre smack bang in the West End. OK, it’s over there on the South Bank, but that’s the National. What’s needed is a modern new-build public theatre, available for hire to independents like the Michael Grandage Company (or his Donmar Warehouse season a few years ago).