Review: Privates on Parade at Noel Coward Theatre

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Privates on Parade is a 1977 farcical ‘play with songs’ written by Peter Nichols following the adventures of Private Steven Flowers during his deployment with the fictional SADUSEA–Song and Dance Unit South East Asia–of the English armed forces stationed in Malaya in the 1940s. This West End revival, directed by Michael Grandage, is a fun little show teeming with sexual humor but with undertones of sexism and racism that question the morality of Britain’s place in Southeast Asia at all.

Based on Nichols’ own experiences in the real-life Combined Services Entertainment, SADUSEA brings us into a camp teeming with homosexuality and alcohol, where the guns are largely decorative. The ensemble of young men are effective as a group at portraying the oversexed, rather absurd daily life of the army, but are often difficult to distinguish when particular romantic relationships and backstories are evoked. The relatively light and easygoing mood of the show cannot last, however, as the communist rebellion has started up in full force, and this ragtag group of performers is forced into combat operations to prove what they’re made of.

While fabulous drag queen Terri Dennis (Simon Russell Beale) and his beautiful and alluring companion Sylvia (Davina Perera) dominate the first act of the show, the straight-edge but slightly odd Major Giles Flack (Angus Wright) leads the second. Wright does his best bringing life to the character, but his focus on defeating the rebels just cannot draw the same kind of energy as Flowers’ attempts to join the drag show and lose his virginity. The character of Flowers (Joseph Timms), meanwhile, is rather forgettable, more a convenient in for the audience than a truly engaging character.

None of the musical numbers are particularly memorable, but what does stand out is the endearingly awful jokes, risque costume change sequences in and out of corsets and garters, and a shower scene with nearly the entire male cast nude–as the audience waits with bated breath for the towels to slip. Privates on Parade does tackle larger issues, but with an audience waiting for the next silly drag number, the deaths and battles just don’t have the same effect. In the end, we see everything that has changed for the Song and Dance Unit after being through battle, and we sympathise, but it has just been a small fight; the war is far from over.

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