Privates on Parade – Alice Livingstone modernises Peter Nichols big questions. (Theater Review)
British self-consciousness is rarely a serious thing. Self criticism is often performed through comedy or parody and is part of why we love British humour so much – it seems so much smarter than what other nations can produce. Set in 1948, Privates on Parade sits in the early stages of that political oddity known as the Malayan emergency and follows several members of an entertainment troupe as they muddle their way through their lives and responsibilities to what their country is asking of them. Because Peter Nichols spent time doing National service as part of the combined services entertainment unit (along famous names such as Kenneth Williams who becomes a strong influence on Nichols work) much of Privates on Parade is autobiographical, which makes many of its singular stories all the more tragic, despite the very funny comedy that enfolds them. War doesn’t mean social problems are put on hold. As we know, war usually exacerbates them, and issues of colonialism, racism, homophobia and Christian hysteria becomes daily trials those on the front line face in more than one sense. When men fear for their lives, it is only natural they seek comfort in the arms of love, but love that available can become representative of the ugliness it was there to deflect and the honest find themselves victims of something far greater than they ever suffered at home.
But aside from all the seriousness and the drama of the fading British empire, Privates on Parade has become a very finny homage to itself in many ways. When first performed in the seventies, it bounced ont the stage in the midst of a passion for the celebration of performing arts such as vaudeville, music hall, pantomime and ‘end of peir’ concerts. ‘It aint half hot Mum’ was popular on television, and Liberace was flouncing his way around the stage. Gay was an underground thing, but the hetro point and giggle was a live and well, it as easier to belive the man in the dress was making fun of men in dresses than that he might actually be one himself. To see it performed all these years later, all these years of knowledge and understanding later, we see far more than the early audiences ever could. with the brilliant innuendo, drag tributes too Dietrich and Carmen Miranda and many large nods to Noel Coward, Privates on Parade becomes an homage to a certain kind of time forged from certain kinds of attitudes.
Alive Livingstone has lovingly brought Privates on Parade to the New Theare in a season to celebrate the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. With its history, not only on London stages, but on the New Theatre stage itself, it’s a perfect accompaniment to the celebrations of Mardi Gras as well as a fitting start to the season for New Theatre. The musical numbers start with a sumptuous drag version of the Andrews Sisters by Henry Moss, David Ouch and Gerwin Widjaja who then morph into the show, David and Gerwin acting as a kind of national big brother, the locals observing the Brits from the side, the awkwardness of racism constantly flouted in their dispassionate and yet wisely judging faces. They form the unspoken glue that frames Privates on Parade, th ever-present reminder that all this carry-on is at the mercy of hosts whose permission was not necessarily granted.
A small live band accompany all the numbers which range from the stunning vaudvillian drag of Captain Terri Dennis (James Lee) through to cute little tap numbers a la Fred and Ginger from Private Flowers (David Hooley) and his cross cultural love interest Sylvia (Diana Perini) every dance choreographed nicely by Trent Kidd and all performed with conviction and grace. The title piece is choreographed and performed true to the history of the show – every number is a perfect balance of the armature hour it is meant to represent and the talent of a cast who know their way around a stage. The jokes and innuendo are still as fresh as the day the were written (that’s British wit for you) even though the play is undoubtedly brought to life by the youth and exuberance of the cast. Every actor embodies his overt stereotype, while at the same time carrying the subtle questions of Peter Nichols; specifically what were the British doing there in the first place? Holding Communism at bay or protecting British trade interests? Peter Eyers Bunyan quoting Major Giles Flack whose simplified Christianity becomes a nightmare when he condemns young men to a useless death, all under the watchful mascarred eye of James Lee’s wise and campy Dennis and the silent, chillingly observant David and Gerwin.
Alice Livingstone reminds us that, like a fine wine, comedies like Privates on Parade only get better with age, richer in message, and deeper in nuance as they get older. This is a wonderful chance to see a play that needs to be seen several times, in several ways throughout a lifetime.