Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, London. February 2013
Simon Russell Beale is one of my favourite actors and when the chance came up to see him in Privates on Parade before the limited season comes to an end I was a very happy Norfolkbookworm.
Rebecca and I knew very little about the story beforehand and once more this worked in our favour.
The play is set in Malaya at the end of the British Empire and follows an entertainment unit on tour. Women are in short supply and so a lot of the 'acts' are done in drag and the humour and poignancy comes through as it becomes clear that most of the company are actually gay and those that aren't are accepting.
When not watching the company rehearse and perform we learn more about the behind the scenes actions of the unit commanders and it is here that the plot turns darker and more serious.
The play was wonderful from curtain up to curtain down the often hilarious first half was always balanced by the slight foreboding that things couldn't last and this balance of laughs and seriousness really worked for me. I did go from crying with laughter to welling up in sadness at the sounding of the Last Post.
I can see why some people are a little uncomfortable about the casual racism of the play but when you realise that this is actually making a point as well as being typical for the time it becomes understandable and in a way a very clever plot device.
The audience in the theatre are addressed frequently from the stage by the cast and it took me a while to see that this wasn't a pretentious 'breaking the fourth wall' event but because we were part of the play. When the SADUSEA company were on stage we had become the Armed Forces audience they are performing to and not just the audience seeing Privates on Parade.
For a cast that were primarily not trained in musical theatre I take my hat off to them all as they sang and danced wonderfully throughout and stayed totally in character and accent as they performed. It was a real ensemble piece and while Simon Russell Beale was the draw for me the entire cast were fabulous and balanced the over the top aspects of Beale's persona wonderfully.
The language, topics discussed and full frontal nudity in this play mean it isn't for everyone (including the school party at the performance we attended!) but for me it was a great play and I am so glad that I found the time to see it - a real pick me up at the end of a drab, cold February.
and for those wondering - yes there were plenty of 'privates' on parade!
More praise has to go to the cast as the play was struck by tragedy when the original actress playing Sylvia died during at the start of the run a few weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. The rest of the performances have been dedicated to her memory.