PRIVATES ON PARADE
by Peter Nichols music by Denis King.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre Port-Na-Craig Pitlochry PH16 5DR In rep to 14 October 2011.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.
TICKETS: 01796 484626.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 4 August.
Song, dance and irony from a master-dramatist sympathetically revived.
Playwright Peter Nichols has often raided his own past as the start-point for plays, and here he uses his post-war time in Combined Services Entertainment to show the British Empire about to start winding-down as the army tries to repress communist insurgency in post-war Malaya.
The struggle’s seen from the sidelines of SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit, South-East Asia), one of those forces units where a concentration of personalities means the usual rules get collectively kicked out by artistic temperament, specifically the dynamic Terri Dennis, who gives full meaning to terms like gay, and army camp.
As in Poppy, five years later (also premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company) Nichols combines serious comment with a popular format. With Poppy it will be pantomime, soured by the Opium Wars setting. In Privates the concert party-pieces keep emerging on stage, including the title number’s camp rudery in the second act.
But there are quieter, more sinister notes beneath. Both opening and closing moments belong to the two Malaysian servants. Between, the British disregard them except as functionaries. But they are the enemies’ eyes and ears in the British camp as they bow formally, fulfilling British expectations of quaintly subservient foreigners.
What Terri, about to return to a damp, intolerant England, sympathetically sees is that the mixed-race Sylvia will only be disappointed if she seeks-out her family in Britain. After the high-jinks, the final gangplank departure, a union flag draped over an empty wheelchair, sums up the state of Empire as the stage is left to the locals.
There’s plenty to enjoy along the way, heightening the irony which steadily emerges. The RSC premiere was dominated by Dennis Quilley’s foreful Terri; like other subsequent performers, Chris Vincent is more restrained; nor, in Richard Baron’s revival, does Dougal Lee as his higher-ranking, slower-witted opponent, the strongly Christian Major Flack develop as his active opponent.
There’s still plenty to enjoy in this decent Pitlochry revival, where a number of actor-musicians heighten the enjoyment of the performance in a piece where ‘performance’ is a means of escape from a reality that itself is filled with deception.
Lee: Richard Delaney.
Cheng: Emma Odell.
Private Steven Flowers: Sandy Batchelor.
Corporal Len Bonny: Alan Steele.
Acting Captain Terri Dennis: Chris Vincent.
Flight-Sergeant Kevin Cartwright: Sam Pay.
Lance Corporal Charles Bishop: Fred Broom.
Leading Aircraftman Eric Young-Love: Matthew Romain.
Sylvia Morgan: Amanda Gordon.
Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond: Darren Machin.
Major Giles Flack: Dougal Lee.
Director: Richard Baron.
Designer/Costume: Ken Harrison.
Lighting: Ace McCarron.
Musical Director: Jon Beales.
Choreographer: Chris Stuart-Wilson.
Associate lighting: Kate Bonney.