‘Privates on Parade’ & Michael Grandage Company


A large box labeled “SADUSEA” sits in a warehouse. Suddenly the steel door pulls open, to reveal Sergeant Flowers, an intelligence officer, arriving at his new post at the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, in Singapore. A gruff officer enters, his every third word is profanity. He is quickly followed by Captain Dennis, the overly camp, crossdressing star of their show.
This “play with songs” centers around the military dance and theater group, most of whom are gay, and their exploits as the Malayan emergency begins to boil over. Privates on Parade started the 15-month season of Michael Grandage’s new theater company. It stars Simon Russell Beale in the lead role of Captain Dennis, and its humor, alongside its poignancy, makes it a great show.

While the show struggles from a lack of plot direction, (the only plot I saw developing was cut short at intermission), the acting really carried the show. Every member of the cast was admirable. The five young soldiers played their parts fantastically, each dealing with their own problems, whether it was dealing with a fiancée leaving him, getting a local woman pregnant or realizing that he is gay. All these problems added a lot of depth to the play: It was not an anti-war play or a pro-homosexuality play but a play about growing up. They just happened to be doing it in the middle of a musical, touring Malaysia as guerilla warfare exploded all around them.

The older characters were fantastically performed. From Beale’s crossdresser, to the drunk, worn out Sergeant, to the falsely Christian general, the range was tremendous. Even the evil characters were not played as evil, but foolish.

The songs were hilarious. The play begins in dress rehearsals, so the costumes are incomplete and cues are missed. I think the funniest moment comes as Beale rushes through a speech in the middle of a song, as he has fallen behind. It is contrasted, however, with songs like “Could you please inform us?”. Beale appears on stage wearing a tuxedo, and looking professional for the first time in the play. He sings of the austerity in England, and how Germany is being paid, and England is starving. Furthermore, he sings about how, just three years later, they are fighting again.

The anti-war and pro-homosexual play was good but it became a bit too preachy. Its anti-colonial sentiments, right up until the end, when they portray the British as the true heroes, seemed a bit long-winded. That being said, the most beautiful moments of the play came from these poignant moments. The gay officer asking Beale why he was so camp. Why couldn’t he just be normal. An officer paying for a local abortion. Letters read out loud for their families back home.

This is the first of the Michael Grandage Company’s season, which will star Dame Judi Dench and Ben Winshaw in the new play Peter and Alice, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, Sheriden Smith and David Walliams in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jude Law in Henry V. Grandage previously served for ten years as the Artistic Director of the Donmar Theater Company, and will direct all five shows. In order to reach new demographics, they are selling more than 100,000 tickets for only £10 each. All shows will play at the Noel Coward Theater. Privates on Parade will run until March 2, 2013.

Privates on Parade is not perhaps the most ambitious start to this new theater company, but it sets a good tone for the future.