Union Theatre, London – until 17 December 2017
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Darcy
With the festive panto season finally on the horizon, why not consider skipping the traditional fairy-tale dames and instead head towards the Union Theatre for a snatch of Simon Green‘s take on Vera Lynn or Marlene Dietrich in Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade. Set amongst the British Army in post-WW2 Malaya and drawn from Nichols’ own experience, a song and dance unit of British soldiers is tasked with putting on morale-boosting variety shows to entertain the troops posted in the region.
Privates on Parade is very much a piece of its time, filled with wicked jokes and double-entendres every step of the way. The military is famous for its coarse humour and it is essential to context the show to its time when not only racism and sexism were rife, but homosexuality itself was a crime. So while modern-day audiences may wince at Nichols’ dialogue, they should never forget his script’s historical accuracy nor its hints of underlying pathos.
Simon Green is superb as Captain Terri Dennis, the company’s leading “lady”. Green’s comic timing is spot on, along with his parodies of Dietrich and Lynn and his gin-swilling charm, irresistible.
There are equally good performances in the ensemble from Matt Hayden as the perfectly mannered, yet emotionally stifled Eric who is the epitome of a 1940’s British gentleman while in the choreographed routines Tom Bowen is a joy maintaining an infectious onstage energy whilst playing the butt of continuous derogatory and racist abuse. As the honest and gentle Charles, who accompanies the entire cast on solo piano and thus truly enhances the authenticity of the “troop cabaret”, Tom Pearce is genuinely enchanting.
There are flaws here, with yet again the producers failing to conquer the Union’s unforgiving acoustics. Martha Pothen (the cast’s only female) and Samuel Curry do a convincing job as the leading romantic couple, but their occasional inaudibility makes it hard for the audience to warm to their charming “war-time love” narrative.
The show’s politics may speak of a time long past but Kirk Jameson’s assured direction nonetheless sees Privates on Parade offering one of the finest night’s entertainment currently to be found on London’s fringe.