Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Age Limit

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Age Limit

Article excerpt

Privates on Parade Noel Coward, until 2 March Dick Whittington and his Cat Hackney Empire, until 6 January Michael Grandage is homeless. After a nearfaultless decade in charge of the Donmar Warehouse, he now reinvents himself as a roving thesp, a buskined vagabond, a theatrical mendicant wandering the byways and the turnpike lanes and ushering his troupe of all-stars into any pen that will accommodate them. It's a medieval conception. The strolling players. His team of celebrity vagrants has taken a 15-month lease on the Noel Coward theatre where its residency kicks off with Privates on Parade, a 1977 play by Peter Nichols, examining life in an army concert party in Malaya in 1948. In shorthand, it's the BBC sitcom It Ain't Half Hot Mum without the spitting bullies and the pouting misfits. Everything is tremendous fun.

Simon Russell Beale plays Terri Dennis, an openly homosexual army captain who loves to swap the khaki for the grease paint and to camp it up on stage as Marlene Dietrich. ('Camp', in that sense, is derived from the wartime tradition of enlisted luvvies touring camps to entertain troops. ) In 1977, this was a campaigning play, which satirised the futility of Britain's imperial project and argued for greater tolerance of 'benders', 'poofs' and 'queers' as they were known.

Some of the humour has dated. When Cap'n Dennis hears that a handsome young officer 'will be attached to your section', he pouts knowingly and murmurs, 'Mm!

Heaven!' A thousand Julian Clary quips have taken the edge off that moment, I'm afraid. Russell Beale is a joy to watch and he plays Dennis with a freshness and brio that almost convince you this is the only role he's ever taken. Sophiya Haque is sublime as the tender-hearted hooker Black Velvet, a mixed-race cutie from Calcutta who dreams of emigrating to England, which she imagines as a gentlemanly paradise where welltailored chaps stroll down Pall Mall every afternoon to take luncheon in their club.

The commanding officer, Major Flack (Angus Wright, on good form), is a preachy Christian lunatic who embodies the 'swordand-bible' spirit of the British Empire. The sentiment he represents was in its death throes in 1948. By 1977 it was extinct. So for all the show's exuberance and bonhomie, it can't help showing its age. You'd have to be 70 to recall the early postwar years from personal experience. …

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