The final image of Michael Grandage's Donmar Warehouse revival of Peter Nichols and Denis King's Privates On Parade offers a beautiful moment of hindsight, perhaps even more ambiguous than is intended. As the members of Song And Dance Unit, South East Asia, disappear up the gangplank to depart from 1948 Malaya, the two Chinese orderlies who had mutely served the company throughout (while, it is implied, being undercover agents of the Communist rebels) return to the stage clad in sharp business suits against a projection of the skyline of modern-day Singapore.
The island state is of course one of the foremost of the Asian tiger economies, but to many in the West is also uncomfortably rigorous in its social and informational intrusiveness. The combined effect is to suggest an element of nostalgia: British rule may have been often amiably incompetent, and the Brits – the god-bothering patrician officers, the tyrannical, corrupt NCOs and so forth – largely unable to see the inevitability of withdrawal from empire, but is such progress from this condition necessarily an altogether good thing?
Nostalgia is a necessary component when watching the show's most prominent character. Acting Captain Terri Dennis is a flamboyant queen of the old school, feminising his male comrades' names (and even swearing, "Jessica Christ!") and able to flush out a double entendre from the densest cover. On a 21st-century stage, the appearance of such a figure can only be sanctioned by locating him within an obviously period piece. Grandage and actor Roger Allam are well aware of this, and so Terri's self-conscious camp always carries just enough of an undertone of defiance... as, indeed, such extravagant behaviour even in a civilian simply attached to His Majesty's armed forces is at every moment making a challenge in itself.
Like Nichols' script and King's songs, Allam and the actors playing the other SADUSEA performers make a virtue out of weakness and occasional outright ropiness. Allam revels in the improbably beefy figure he cuts as Dietrich and dares us to snigger at his over-ambitious musical trills (which we duly do, of course). In such an atmosphere, it's easy to skate over things going genuinely wrong such as when, on the press night, James McAvoy as the viewpoint character, young innocent Steven Flowers, trips during a dance sequence.
What takes the piece beyond a simple clone of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum is of course that it shows the life from which such entertainments provided relief: not just the guerrilla war (climaxing in a mid-concert attack from which none of the artistes emerges unscathed) but the various sexual and power complexities within the company offstage. It is not just that watching such a show in 2001 offers an escape from the present, but that it provided such a crucial service even in 1948, and even for those performing.
With the artistic directorships of both the Donmar and the Almeida about to fall vacant, there is a school of arts punditry which holds plausibly that Grandage can pick whichever of the posts he fancies more. This production has certainly done no harm his prospects.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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