Currently playing at Greenwich Theatre as part of the ‘Peter Nichols Season’, Privates on Parade presents a unique view of military life; combining forceful masculinity with camp ebullience. Drawn from Nichols’ own experience of his time in the Combined Services Entertainment, a war-time troupe deployed to boost the troops’ morale, this play first and foremost demonstrates the changing attitudes toward minority groups. Funny and dark in equal measure, this is a play that celebrates the global journey toward a ‘better, freer, gayer world’.
In 1948, Private Steven Flowers arrives in Singapore, having been posted to the Song and Dance Unit, South East Asia. He meets Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a cross-dressing artiste who has left Britain to experience the Far East, who welcomes him to the troupe. Dennis is flamboyant, funny and full of bawdy puns and, along with a number of the SADUSEA performers, is openly gay. Those who aren’t appear refreshingly unoffended by them. However, Sgt. Maj. Drummond vocalises his disdain for his peers and though homosexuality at the time was actually illegal, he is singled out as disruptive. Pte. Flowers is promoted to Sergeant and befriends Sylvia, an Eurasian dancer in an abusive relationship with Drummond. As the troupe rehearses, tensions rise as the Malayan Emergency swirls around them and each of the soldiers yearns to return home.
On the whole, Privates on Parade is enjoyable. It starts with brilliant energy and the cast topple about the stage with affable clumsiness. Yet, as the plot unfolds and the tone of the piece crashes from the initial light and funny anecdotes into a well of despondency, the energy nosedives. Equally, while the musical numbers are no doubt intended to keep the audience engaged, they are vocally and choreographically weak and result only in disrupting the scenes. Some of the characterisation leaves much to be desired and suffers due to the attention given to the various accents. However the show is carried beautifully by Philip Lawrence as Dennis, who despite stumbling over a few lines, builds a natural rapport with the audience. James Robert-Moore’s appropriately gawky Eric Young-Love conjures wave after wave of laughter while Adam Trembath brilliantly conveys Charles Bishop’s innocence and coy nature.
Perhaps the most notable and encouraging aspect of this piece is that, through using some altogether racist and sexist terminology (and thus evoking mild gasps of shock from the audience) it demonstrates the modern world’s new-found intolerance of intolerance. At times, the plot lacks direction and feels rather stagnant and the musical numbers are rather forgettable. Nevertheless this play provides a rare and valuable insight into an otherwise unknown subculture of the British Army.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Written by Peter Nichols and Denis King
Directed by Stuart Burrows