Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Privates on Parade

Michael Grandage Company presents PRIVATES ON PARADE - a play by Peter Nichols. Music by Denis King at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.

Peter Nichols was born in 1927 and is still writing for the theatre. His first play in 1967 was the devastating comic tragedy A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG, presenting a young couple dealing with their disabled daughter, affectionately nicknamed, Joe Egg - the auto-biographical details from the writer's life brilliantly, shockingly resonant still today. It is an audacious and relevant work, as pertinent today as it was then, as daring in form today as it was then - much to admire. Other great success followed with THE NATIONAL HEALTH (1969) at the National Theatre ( a scene was recently featured, re-created, as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of that company, broadcast around the world last month. I was part of the Royal Queensland Theatre Company production in Brisbane in early 1973, with Carol Burns, Douglas Hedge and a young Geoffrey Rush, directed by the then Artistic Director, Alan Edwards - I believe that that may have been its only production - strange, as it is an immensely interesting political work couched in an hilariously comic conceit). FORGET-ME-NOT LANE followed (1971) - presented, later by the Old Tote Theatre Company, with Drew Forsythe and Ruth Cracknell, I remember. Mr Nichols' next great success was PRIVATES ON PARADE (1977) for the Royal Shakespeare Company. (This enormously successful play was first presented at the Q Theatre in Sydney during their early history in the early 1980's (?) under the enlightened Artistic Direction of the great theatre pioneer, Doreen Warburton - it starred Robert Davis and Laura Gabriel amongst others, designed by Arthur Dicks, maybe Directed by him as well. It is part of the upcoming season at the New Theatre - it's second presentation there, I believe). Mr Nichols has continued to write for the theatre, in fact, his last play LINGUA FRANCA was presented at the Finborough Theatre, London, in 2010. Michael Blakemore, the Australian director,working in the UK most of his life, had a hand with most of the original productions above - read his latest book, STAGE BLOOD, for the details of the relationship and the productions. Mr Nichols has his own memoir: FEELING YOU' RE BEHIND, as well.

This production at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, was the first of a season of five plays given by the new Michael Grandage Company, following his long Artistic leadership at the Donmar Warehouse in London (2002-2012) and the Sheffield Theatres (2000-05). The other plays included John Logan's new play, PETER AND ALICE (Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw), Martin McDonnagh's THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Daniel Radcliffe), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Sheridan Smith and David Williams) and HENRY V (Jude Law).

On a spectacularly detailed set design by Christopher Oram (also the Costumes), Mr Grandage, leads a naive Private Steven Flowers (Joseph Timms) into an introduction to the fictitious SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit South East Asia) on tour in Singapore and later, Malaya. Made up of a group of misfits, it is lead by an outrageous Terri Dennis (Simon Russell Beale). This play has, as is the case of A DAY IN THE LIFE OF JOE EGG, some biographical origins for Peter Nichols, his war time experience with ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association). It is a political mirror to the era and certainly had, with its original production in 1977, a contemporary sting. It was able to, satirically, investigate the ethical politics of the late British Empire and its representatives, and create a sensation by featuring this troupe of army entertainers peopled, principally, by Gay Men (there was even a flash of naked bums!) The contemporary political ramifications of both 'thrusts' of the play, in 1977, were audacious and mightily relevant. The success of the play and the production led by Dennis Quilley registered a clarion call for an open, 'modern' discussion of these issues and began a reassessment (perhaps) of where the United Kingdom stood in the modern world on these historical poltical and social issues.

 One can glimmer why the play was not taken up by the major companies in Australia, the conservatism so entrenched over both these issues then (now?) and had to wait for the socialist and progressive leanings of a leader like Ms Warburton to take it on for Sydney - in Penrith, mind you - she having a direct heritage to the Joan Littlewood Company and it's political-social concerns of the minorities in society. (Shame is it not, that no one in Sydney (Australia) has taken up Joan Littlewood's OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! as part of their season programs to commemorate the disaster of World War I? - maybe, later, during the next centenary of four long years marking war horror, 2014 - 2018, it will appear on our stages to place war in the never changing context of human greed and stupidity).

So, back to PRIVATES ON PARADE, with the election of Margaret Thatcher a few years later (1979) and the initial onslaught of the AIDS virus pandemic (1981) in the Gay Community, the sweep of openness indicated by the presence and success of this play, may have been quashed, and even the title of the play may have become to risqué .

This production is an entertainment with the actual play 'creaking' in its twists and observations, and being revealed as somewhat dated in terms of its relevance, because of the central position of the 'grander' issues at the core of Mr Nichol's focus. Certainly, the critique of the politics of Empire in this play is now very faint and a trifle embarrassing (as an Australian colonial 'boy', watching this, maybe) - the final image that Mr Grandage gives this production, where the two Asian characters, Cheng (Sadao Ueda) and Lee (Chris Chan) who have been present, mostly, as ignored and oppressed servants to the British, assume a posture of power (projecting into the future), as the troupe boards a boat back to 'old Blighty', is limp and feels tacked on, and hardly a redress for their underused and abused presence during the rest of the play - it is, of course an accident of the shift in history, of the times, for the play is, after all, is, 36 years old! - a lot of "water under the bridge" has passed - read, perhaps David Hare's masterpiece, PLENTY to feel some acceptable critique of Empire. (In passing, I wonder about the relevancy of THE NATIONAL HEALTH by Mr Nichols. I suspect that that play is still dreadfully on target in its political gaze, and still is gloriously funny in the 'wrappings' of its comic formulations. It would be great to see it). The gay issues of this 36 year old play, their concerns and presentation, are no longer shocking, and so, too out-distanced by time and custom in 2013 to be still so.

The company of actors were of a high order. Joseph Timms as Steven Flowers, a great 'guide' to the world of the play and its contents; Angus Wright as Major Giles Flack, representing the British 'missionary' zeal of the time; and, especially John Marquez as the swinging bisexual, Corporal Len Bonny. But the great reason to see this production is to witness Simon Russell Beale as the Gay Commander of the entertainment troupe, Terri Dennis.

 Once again, it has been so long since I had been to London, like my lack of first hand knowledge of the remarkable Mark Rylance (see, TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III), I had never seen Mr Beale in the flesh. The leading 'actor' of this troupe, Mr Dennis, is in command of all the major impersonations of the musical numbers of the production: Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda appear in the ample flesh of Mr Beale with impeccable panache and beauty of lavish costume and make-up design. But it is the Noel Coward quotations at the beginning of Act Two: COULD YOU PLEASE INFORM US that is a true knock-out. This Terri Dennis is a faultless, irreproachable creation of a thoroughly gay gentlemen, of a certain type in the theatre, that I knew so well from times not long past , and still, now and again, in times so very, very present. What Mr Beale managed to do was to give the character remarkable depth and passionate humanity behind the glittering and witty facade. The lightening quick subtleties of 'gay' vocal innuendo and contrast of 'straight talking', with the technical command of the facial and body changes, suggestibilities, are astonishing, making this performance the 'saviour' of the production of this once daring play, and the reason to attend to it. In the much changed world of 2013, there is no 'dating' of great art and the acting by Mr Beale was great ART. And to be savoured, relished.

See what you think about the play in February at the New Theatre. Entertaining, no doubt, but straining for relevancy today, I think. We shall see and hope to be proved wrong.

I saw this production in early January this year.

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