Privates on Parade, Union Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s will remember the BBC sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft about a group of Second World War entertainers getting up to all sorts deep in India and Burma.

Peter Nichols’ 1977 play Privates on Parade is actually set slightly later on (during the Malayan Emergency, which started in 1948) but the scenario is not much different: a troupe of entertainers overseen by a largely clueless major and a belligerent, hostile sergeant major.

But there the similarities largely end, for Nichols’ play and its original songs written by Denis King concentrate far more on satire and a questioning of the British Army’s role in a diminishing empire. It also, in the performance of Simon Green as the troupe’s principal drag artiste, Terri Dennis, gives some delicious send-ups of the icons of the day.

Green’s Dennis delivers a perfect Marlene Dietrich, before effortlessly switching into double-breasted evening wear to be the consummate Coward. King’s ‘Could You Please Inform Us’ is a send-up of both Noël Coward’s comic ditties and the jingoistic patriotism that such forces entertainments were expected to provide.

Dennis’ outre, camp drag act is entertaining, if a little over-familiar; since the play’s debut in 1977 it feels as if the portrayal of homosexual characters on stage has advanced somewhat.

Similarly, the relationship between Paul Sloss’ cheery Brummie Len and Tom Pearce’s nurse-cum-pianist Charles may have been groundbreaking for the age; but 40 years on, it is noticeable how we hear more about their love for one another in dialogue than the play dared present.

While the gay characters feel slighter by dint of history, Green, Sloss and Pearce all provide the show’s most endearing and engaging characters, closely followed by Martha Pothen as the half Indian, half Welsh Sylvia. Unfortunately, some of the heterosexual characters fare less well.

Both Matt Beveridge’s drunken sergeant major and Samuel Curry as the troupe newcomer, each of which has various homophobic lines of dialogue to impart, never feel truly comfortable with the harsher sides of their character.

Curry, in particular, struggles with the staging device of having him read out his letters home direct to the audience. Rattling through such pieces keeps the audience from engaging with him at the top of Act I, and thus deadens the impact of his actions in Act II as another side to his character is revealed.

Indeed there are many slightly missed moments, from the carrying of suitcases inscribed with barely visible city names to convey the troupe’s travels up the Malay Peninsula, to the incredulity of the officer classes as to how their plans might be ending up in enemy hands even as they are attended to by local servants.

That last point is one of several in which Nichols’ language points a finger at the racism inherent in a predominantly white army stamping down incursions in which anyone with different coloured skin is presumed to be a Communist or a savage.

It is a tough balancing act to include such dialogue without seeming to endorse it, or laugh it off: this production’s attitude, to let it play out without emphasis, seems the least effective approach to take.

But whatever struggles the production may have with Nichols’ dialogue, it compensates with its productions of King’s songs.

Commentaries on the state of war, and of the state of the company’s own private lives, they may be; but they are exquisite pastiches that bring out the best in all the performers, and in director Kirk Jameson’s sense of musical theatricality.