Peter Nicols’ 1977 ‘play with music’ enjoyed a well-received revival in 2012, picking up a slew of awards and critical acclaim for its star, Simon Russell Beale. Those expecting something of similar quality are likely to be disappointed with the Union Theatre’s flat restaging.
Set during the Malayan Emergency of the late 1940s, the show follows a song and dance unit, touring South East Asia to provide light relief for the British Army. Private Steve Flowers is drafted in to join the production and he is soon taken under the wing of flamboyant Captain Terri Davis – self-appointed star of the show.
Largely made-up by a bunch of misfits, the troupe bulldozes its way through the testosterone of war with campy song and dance numbers, which manage to raise smiles from the audience at the intimate Union Theatre. But it’s not all sequins and showtunes as the team has to contend with a corrupt and violent Sergeant Major and the foolish Major Flack, who seems intent on leading them into danger.
Simon Green has a plum role in Captain Davis and does portray the aging diva well – a master of the pursed lip and theatrical flounce – but he could certainly amp up the flamboyance, especially in the musical numbers which are more pedestrian than pizzazz. His cast mates are solid enough, but there are few shining stars. Martha Pothen does show some potential as the play’s sole (and underwritten) female role.
Very much a piece of its time, the play is full of outdated views and includes casual racism and homophobia, which made some of the audience visibly uncomfortable. The show can work if the campy farce is dialled up, but the quick-fire wit and innuendo are under-serviced by the largely one-note cast. More successful is the set design, Mike Lees does a great job of transporting the audience into the rehearsal space and stage of the 1940s touring troupe.
The play is diverting enough and is well-timed for panto season, but was under-rehearsed on the evening of November 23rd. Perhaps as the cast settle into the roles, Privates on Parade will be injected with some much needed spark.
Cast: Simon Green, Samuel Curry, Callum Coates, Martha Pothen, Paul Sloss, Tom Pearce, Matt Beveridge, Matt Hayden, Tom Bowen, Mikey Howe Book: Peter Nichols Music: Dennis King Director: Kirk Jameson Musical Supervisor: Nick Barstow Design: Mike Lees Duration: 150 mins Theatre: Union Theatre Dates: November 22nd -December 17th 2017