Opening the newly-formed Michael Grandage Company’s 15-month-long residency at the Noël Coward Theatre, the former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse directs the first of five star-studded shows, Peter Nichols’s play with songs, Privates on Parade. Following a band of soldiers stationed in Singapore with the task of entertaining the troupes with nightly shows stocked full of dames, Nichols’s comedic play shows the – at times touching – effects that being posted away from “good old Blighty” can have upon men. There’s plenty of gayness to be had and it’s not all just dressing up as women: homosexuals are in abundance among the group, led in ostentation by the razzle dazzle of Simon Russell Beale’s Acting Captain Terri Dennis. Whilst Privates on Parade is undoubtedly very funny, Grandage teases the underlying sadness out of Nichols’s play, creating a poignant production.
For the opening of Grandage’s West End season, Privates on Parade couldn’t have offered a more solid piece of theatre. Nichols’s play provides just enough tomfoolery to make the story’s backdrop – of soldiers suffering from ambushes and dying in the name of their country – leave a bitterness in your mouth. Yes, there is the song and dance of the entertainment troupe, but Grandage uses it with dark and comic effect. Nichols’s play draws upon the playwright’s own experience of being posted abroad, which is clearly seen between the lines of dialogue and the taut relationships drawn in his writing. For Grandage, the the play provides a chance to dissect the themes of war, empathy and the conditions of male companionship so that, with its strong cast, Privates on Parade really is a multilayered piece of theatre, as appealing as it is devastating.
Leading the cast is Russell Beale, who offers a camp and perfectly pitched Captain Dennis. Whilst Grandage doesn’t give him the complete run of the stage, Russell Beale shines beneath the lights as if he were always destined to play the role. Other stand-out talent includes the young and sweet-hearted Joseph Timms as Private Steven Flowers, and the rugged and firm Mark Lewis Jones as Sergeant Major Reg Drummond.
While some of the singing could benefit from some fine tuning (it often feels like it needs a little more oomph compared to the acting) and while the set design feels, to me, a little tired (although the costumes are on form), it is hard to fault the production. Grandage opens his season with a flare signal to the rest of the West End: buck up your creativity and commitment to talent, or get out of town. At least, that’s what it feels like when you watch an ensemble made up of more talent than the leading celebrity casting in other West End shows of late.
It’s a fun evening, harking back to old time England, while bringing to the fore the universal and timeless emotions and effects of war. It’s clean, honest and fun, and when the actors speak directly to the audience, you can’t help but to be drawn back to the days when entertainment on the stage was about a song, dance and a laugh. Russell Beale pushes the cast through this production, but he is supported unprecedentedly by them too. When the production drops from light-hearted fun to serious drama, it does so smoothly, emotionally engaging the audience. Not many productions could handle such demands, but this one strikes the balance perfectly. If Russell Beale isn’t nominated for an award (despite being the wrong side of the award season) I might just eat my ticket stub.
Privates on Parade is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 March 2013. For more information and tickets (including £10 tickets!) see the Michael Grandage Company website. Photo by Johan Persson.