Thursday, 13 December 2012

Privates on Parade - review

Written by: Alisdair Hinton (@AliHinton88)

Noel Coward Theatre, London

If Director Michael Grandage maintains this standard for his season of five plays at the Noel Coward theatre he will achieve something astonishing, for the moment though, this is an excellent start. With Grandage at the helm Privates on Parade, Peter Nichols’ 1977 music comedy transcends its time of writing and becomes startlingly current. The production asks us to consider what happens when the British leave a war zone, what too much luxury leads to, and just what is the “ordinary” England that is worth fighting for? It is relevant, exciting and feels as though it could have been written yesterday.

Photo: Johan Parsson
Beginning with the arrival of new recruit Private Steven Flowers (played with brilliant wide-eyed innocence by Joseph Timms), Privates on Parade tells the story of the fictional ‘Song and Dance Unit South East Asia’ (SADUSEA): a unit stationed in Singapore and Malaysia in the late 1940’s, tasked with raising troop moral through the means of a touring cabaret. With song, dance, magic and comedy and under the leadership of a very unlikely soldier, Acting Captain Terri Dennis (Simon Russell Beale), SADUSEA presents a microcosm of Englishness. Uprooted and placed in a foreign land Privates on Parade creates the perfect stage on which to excavate fundamental issues surrounding race, sexuality, nation and the ways in which Brits relate to the world around them both historically and today.

Nichols reminds us “this isn’t a history class, this is theatre.” The narrative is fluid, and playful; the lives of the soldiers turn to song and dance before seamlessly becoming part of an evenings cabaret show. This use of theatrical convention alongside the shows self conscious brain forces the audience to engage not merely with a story on a stage, but crucially with the bigger questions. Perhaps the biggest success is the faith shown by Grandage in the intelligence of his audience: points are never pushed, links to current affairs not heavy handedly highlighted, simply placed on a stage to explore.

That is not to say that the evening is purely a play of ideas lacking drama and humanity; the staging and acting is never less than excellent. A brilliantly strong ensemble cast paired with Christopher Oram (Set & Costume), Paul Constable (Lighting), Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine’s (Sound) intelligent and immersive design elements allow the philosophy of the piece to flourish, whilst never losing sight of the fact that theatre works when the audience care for the people on the stage. Denis King’s musical numbers choreographed with humor and vigor by Ben Wright also contain far more excitement and invention in their staging than many big budget West End shows whilst still all contributing to the overarching movement of the piece. Simon Russell Beale takes delight in every shared he has with an audience that sits in the palm of his hand from his very first entrance, but to single out one person really is to undermine just what a group success this is.

Photo: Johan Parsson
At times hilarious and heart warming, at others tragic, this thoughtful and joyous production could not have come at a better time. A play with Britain and humanity is at its heart and one lingering question: “who won the war?” A question to which, it would seem with the play’s final moments, Grandage may have an answer. 

This production runs until 2 March 2013. 
@MichaelGrandage #PrivatesOnParade 

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