Privates on Parade review at Union Theatre, London – ‘an engaging ensemble’
Charting the Malay Emergency of 1948, Peter Nichols’ play with songs Privates on Parade is a curious cross between a pantomime and a British imperialist South Pacific. It’s an often uncomfortable watch. The crisis of identity and masculinity in the last days of the British Empire is tied up with the ingrained racism of the time in a way that must surely have made many audience members cringe when it was first performed in 1977.
Private Steven Flowers (Samuel Curry) experiences a baptism of fire amongst the ‘bum boys’ of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, who are more eager to enjoy the sun and escape ‘Clementina’ Attlee’s austerity Britain than uphold the remains of the empire.
With his pastiches of the music of Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda, Simon Green’s flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis emerges as a waspish but kind-hearted “aunty” and an unlikely moral centre of the piece.
The song and dance numbers by Denis King are the wittiest and most entertaining part of the show, and this is where Kirk Jameson’s revival is most alive. Each one comes with a satisfying sting in its tail. Mike Lees’ design also effectively captures the overheated closeness of barrack life.
Curry is winningly fresh-faced as Flowers, though too tentative about conveying the character’s more callous side. There are also eye-catching professional debuts from Martha Pothen as the only woman in the piece, the ‘Eurasian’ Sylvia who poignantly communicates the loneliness of being objectified and not belonging anywhere, and Matt Hayden as the endearingly earnest Eric Young-Love.
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