Michael Grandage not only reinvented the Donmar Warehouse during a decade long tenure at the helm of it, but also threw down the gauntlet to the West End when he took its brand out of its tiny Covent Garden studio home to establish a year-long residency at Wyndham’s that retained the Donmar ethos, including the double header of star power in the casting and low pricing.
Sophyia Haque (Sylvia Morgan), Simon Russell Beale (Captain Terri Dennis), Joseph Timms (Private Steven Flowers) in Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward Theatre, London Photo: Johan Persson
Now, less than a year on from departing the Donmar, he’s continuing where he left off, in every sense, to reinvent himself as the flagbearer for his own brand, and it could just stand the West End entirely on its head. Prices, it is true, match the current top end being charged elsewhere, with premium tickets at £85 - but at the lowest end there are more than 100,000 tickets being sold at £10. Once again, the stars have lined up to appear for him. Future productions will include Judi Dench and Jude Law (both of whom worked for him in the previous West End Donmar season), Ben Whishaw, Daniel Radcliffe, Sheridan Smith and David Walliams.
He opens his new West End residency, however, by re-visiting a show he first did at the Donmar in 2001, before he even ran the place and therefore giving it the transfer it never had then. Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade, threaded through with songs by Denis King, is part play, part musical portrait of the backstage life of an army entertainment unit operating in post-Second World War Singapore and Malaya that remains as piercingly original as it must have been when the RSC originally premiered it in 1977.
As yet another entry in portraits of backstage theatrical life from the current revival of Kiss Me, Kate to the forthcoming return of A Chorus Line, Privates on Parade sees life, as the song from La Cage Aux Folles would put it, from a different angle. And that comparison is all the more appropriate since it revolves, like La Cage does, around a defiantly cross-dressing man who hides his bruised heart behind a succession of glamorous impersonations of women from Marlene Dietrich to Carmen Miranda.
Simon Russell Beale, taking over the role previously taken by Roger Allam in Grandage’s previous production and the late Denis Quilley in the RSC’s original, is in conspiratorially high form, channelling a man who is a cross between Christopher Biggins, Russell Grant and Edward Hibbert, but a far better actor than any of them. While he magnificently conveys the camp asides and brittle attack of the character, he also shows the humanity behind the defensive shield that the drag and comedy provides.
But this is also, like all Grandage’s work, a brilliant company effort, too, and there’s beautifully textured performances from a cast that includes Joseph Timms as virginal new company arrival Private Steven Flowers, John Marquez as Corporal Leo Bonny and Angus Wright as Major Giles Flack.
It is stunningly served by the director’s regular collaborators Christopher Oram, who provides a monumental set of a crumbling colonial mansion, and Paule Constable’s lighting. The new Grandage regime has got off to a grand start.