PRIVATES ON PARADE
by Peter Nichols
New Victoria Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme. 20 April-12 May 2001.
Runs 2 hours 45 minutes. One interval.
Review Timothy Ramsden 4 May
Rare, solid revival of Nichols play (with Dennis King songs) which again proves how fine a writer he can be.
Malaya, 1948. Britain’s post-war rule still seeks to stretch over the waves, while the Communists come out of the jungle woodwork. And keeping the troops something like happy is Major Terri Dennis’s son-of-ENSA troupe. No wonder the empire (like the Empires) crumbled.
Outrageously camp Terri (Peter Shorey) creates an alternative command structure to the British Army; the director rules, but apart from that the troupers enjoy a strange democracy and even logic amid the mad hierarchy of the ‘real’ troops. These are represented by the innocently religious Major Giles Flack (Nick Lumley) and the corrupt, brutal Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond (James Allen). Nichols brings us into this world alongside a wide-eyed new recruit Private Steven Flowers.Shorey’s slight figure does not command the stage as did Dennis Quilley who created Terri Dennis in the RSC premiere. That leaves space in Rupert Goold’s production for the darker sides of the action; Nichols entices us with his stage fun (including Terri’s Marlene Dietrich and Carmen Miranda numbers) down the dark alley of a muddy, dysfunctional world where the playwright mugs us with his disenchantment.
Soldiers dream of home At the end they sing from the back of the theatre gallery while the stage is left to the two Malays, sinister masked figures whose stereotyped silent submission has concealed subversion under the soldiers’ eyes.
Two performances stand out in the capable cast; Lumley’s dreamy, incompetent Major and Rebecca Sarker, as Sylvia Morgan the half-Welsh Malay woman who is several characters’ love interest. Abused, impregnated and deserted by the heterosexuals, she finally realises her dream of voyaging to the land of her father on the arm of Major Terri, where she will be as out of place in fifties England as the Major himself.
Tim Shortall’s looming rubber trees create a strong mood but cause sightline problems. Still, when you can see, the experience is worth it.