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      23.01.2002 21:31
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      (Just to clarify: the play I'm writing about contains nudity, strong language and strobe lighting. This opinion contains nothing of the sort. Hope the title wasn't misleading.) The best thing about living in London, apart from the streets being paved with gold of course, is the huge range of theatre on offer. I'm personally more into the kind of stuff you get at the National Theatre or the RSC than things like the Lloyd Weber musicals and so on, but there's something for pretty much everyone. You get big stars on the London stage (I've seen, amongst others, Kevin Spacey, Jessica Lange, Anna Friel, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman), excellent productions, and some very interesting new plays. The Donmar is one of the most acclaimed small theatres in London. It's put on an astounding range of plays in the last ten years, as a glance at the walls in the lobby, bar etc. will show you. It's a nice little theatre, rather like the Young Vic, but with a smaller stage. I'd been once before, to see some short plays by Pinter (one of which was ruined by a mobile phone going off during a particularly pregnant pause). The Donmar play that I still regret not being able to get a ticket for was The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman. I have great admiration for Miss Kidman's acting, and the fact that she reportedly spent most of the play naked would have been the icing on the cake, so to speak. Oh well. At the moment the Donmar's staging a revival of Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade (the same author's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is also currently in the West End, although I haven't seen it). The play is about a troupe of army entertainers touring Malaya in 1948 to entertain the troops. So in a way it's rather like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, but more serious. Not that it isn't funny, there's a lot of comedy in it, but bad things happen too. The play begins with a young Private, Steven Flowers, j
      oining the company. He starts out naive and idealistic, and the play is kind of about his development and education. (I read somewhere that the play is partly autobiographical, and this character represents the author.) There are lots of musical numbers throughout the play as we get to see the entertainers entertaining. A conversation will suddenly and without warning transform into a song and dance routine. The songs are lively and funny and a fairly accurate sounding pastiche of 1940s music, although I'm no expert. Some of the songs comment on the plot, some are just there to show the kind of entertainment that is offered to the troops. There's a lot of camp humour and homosexual characters - there are two gays and one bisexual in the company. Flowers is initially wary and defensive, especially around Terri, the flamboyant drag act who heads the troupe, but gradually comes to accept his colleagues' various lifestyles. In terms of plot, it's a play of two halves. The first half focuses for the most part on Flowers' love affair with Sylvia, the only female member of the company. She is also involved in an abusive relationship with the company's sergeant major, an unpleasant bully who's involved with the black market, prostitution and a whole range of other nasty criminal activities. He gets it into his head the Flowers is a spy sent by army intelligence to investigate him, and it seems for a while that the main focus of the play is going to be the conflict between the two men. This turns out not to be the case. In the second half the focus shifts to Major Flack, the company commander. Not a performer, he feels resentful about being put in command of a unit of entertainers when all he really wants to do is fight the communist menace. He decides to send everyone out into the darkest jungle to try and lure the commies into some kind of trap. Obviously with the unit consisting of non-combatants you know things can&#
      39;t end well, but the Major, oblivious to all this, carries on regardless. The Major's blinkered attitude and general lack of understanding of the needs of his men should make him an unlikeable character, and that would probably have been the easiest route for the play to take, but he's actually rather endearing. He represents the traditional English establishment, all stiff upper lip and militarism, which is played for laughs most of the time. And his belief that the sole purpose of the British Empire is to bring the Christian message to heathen savages, and that traditional English social and religious values are the most potent weapons against the Communist threat, is somehow rather touching. He's a man out of place in the complex post war world, but he doesn't realise that. Most of all, he is frustrated - he wants to see combat but can't because of the nature of his command, and his near-adoption of Flowers as a kind of surrogate son points to deeper rooted disappointments and yearnings in his life. The Major also seems to be at the heart of the play's 'message', if you're inclined to look for such things. There's quite a lot about Britain 'losing the peace', and several characters certainly feel that things were better for them during the war. The Major is brimming over with confusion and frustration at the turn the world has taken since the end of the war, with Britain becoming increasingly marginalised as a world power, and he desperately wants to go to war against the communists. And there's a superb Noel-Coward-esque song on the subject at the start of the second half. The play also hints at questioning the ultimate purpose of the British Empire, continuing to hold on to dominions that neither need nor want the British there. The ending makes it pretty clear that the departure of the British was a good thing for the native people. But it's not a play that particularly forces any mean
      ings or messages at you. At the end of the day, Privates on Parade is an entertaining and dramatic story, and one that packs quite a strong emotional punch at times. The acting is excellent throughout. Best of all is Roger Allam as Terri, the drag queen. Allam's one of my favourite stage actors, and is probably the main reason I went to see this. He's always watchable, and was the only really good Macbeth that I've seen. Here he camps it up a treat, getting to impersonate Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda (and he does an excellent Noel Coward impression, too). Terri is a superbly written exemplar of the highest of high camp, referring to himself as 'Auntie', and feminising every male name he mentions. There's also a hint of sadness to the character: he talks about the great love of his life, who broke his heart by dying in the war, and seems gently envious of the gay couple in the troupe. Malcolm Sinclair is also very good as the Major, patronising but confused, caring in his own strange way, but ultimately frustrated by his life. Both he and Allam have been nominated for Olivier awards this year for their work in this play. And the rest of the cast are very good, too, in roles that generally start out as comic caricatures but end up as rounded human beings, each facing hardship in their own way. I was worried at first that the comic and tragic elements of the play wouldn't work too well together. I've seen a few plays which start out as comedy but then lurch into tragedy a bit too suddenly, and too extremely, unbalancing things badly and leaving you feeling like you'd been watching two different plays. Mouth to Mouth by Kevin Elyot and Blasted by Sarah Kane are two examples I've seen recently. Privates on Parade balances them quite nicely, with outbursts of outrageous humour undermining some of the darker moments, and an undercurrent of danger and sadness in a lot of the lighter hearted bits. It
      's not quite perfect in this respect, but it's a difficult mixture to pull off successfully. Even Shakespeare fumbles it occasionally (Richard III, for instance), and this play certainly doesn't disappoint in the way that Mouth To Mouth did. I think I may have mentioned that the play contains (male) nudity, strong language, and (very effective) strobe lighting, so if any of those things bother you then I guess you should stay away. But if you don't mind that then I'd certainly recommend this play. Tickets apparently range from £5 to £ 28 (I paid £15). It's on until March 2nd. Catch it while you can. (I'm quite proud that I used the word 'exemplar'. I don't think I ever have before.)

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