Written in 1977 about events in 1948, there can be a temptation to dismiss the campery and dated gender politics and racial stereotyping of Privates on Parade as outdated and offensive. An argument could be made – and it is one that I have made myself before – that such notions need to be interrogated and challenged by productions. But equally, when the writing is intelligently nuanced and the direction sensitively done, audiences can be left to do this for themselves.
And so it is – I find – with Peter Nichols’ play with songs, presented here by Kirk Jameson at the Union. Take the time to delve beneath the surface and you’ll soon see there’s incisive commentary about the insidious nature of colonialism, about the personal freedoms that can be explored when released from the social strictures of home, about the contemporary lack of opportunities for women, about how war is an equal opportunities offender when it comes to shattering happiness, whether gay or straight.
Front and centre here is Simon Green’s inimitable Captain Terri Dennis, leader of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUESA), a British army entertainment corps stationed in Malaya at the end of WWII as the army tried to reclaim the country in the name of the Empire. Revelling in the club-like intimacy of this theatre, he nails the flirtatious nature and fierce integrity of a performer, of a man, seizing his hard-fought opportunity to be his authentic self.
And as the personnel around him, he’s supported by a game and enthusiastic ensemble who maintain a cracking level of energy. Paul Sloss’ delightfully gormless Brummie Len is a peach of a performance, delicately moving too in the subtle romance that has developed with Tom Pearce’s (a mean pianist here) Charles. Callum Coates’ clipped officer Flack is particularly good in delivering his ‘letters home’, and Martha Pothen, as the mixed-race Sylvia, is a vital presence that doubly questions contemporary attitudes to race and sex, as well as probing notions of responsibility.
Musically, Nick Barstow keeps Denis King’s pastiche-heavy score feeling lively, Mike Lees’ design works well within the space to create an appropriately homespun feel, and Ben Jacobs’ playful lighting allows for some moments of real visual grace, especially in the performance numbers. Above all, Jameson ensures there’s a wonderfully affectionate feel for the piece here which works wonders. Recommended.