Privates on Parade runs at the New Theatre from February 15 – March 8. By Peter Nichols, music by Denis King, directed by Alice Livingstone.
It’s really hard to know what to say about Privates on Parade. It is a mess. A glorious mess – an officers’ mess – but a mess nonetheless.
Mess isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, there are scholars who have devoted lots of time and space and energy to thinking through the poetics and erotics of mess). But mess has to be carefully contained, otherwise you end up with the literary/textual/theatrical equivalent of one of those houses you see on Hoarders. That’s kind of what I felt happened with Privates on Parade. There is just way too much going on in it. All this stuff has been thrown into a big heap and jumbled around and then strewn chaotically across almost three hours, and… and it’s a mess. It’s difficult and confusing and occasionally rewarding, but mostly, it’s just cluttered. And that is a problem, because all that junk is hiding the bits in this show that are genuinely fabulous.
Privates on Parade is set amongst a group of British soldiers stationed in Singapore in 1948. If I was going to try and describe the plot, it would a) be confusing, and b) probably be spoilers, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that it follows a group of British soldiers in an environment they don’t really understand, coping the best they can. At the beginning of the play, Private Steven Flowers (David Hooley) is introduced to the group, and quickly realises that there are two distinct groups: one, spearheaded by the nefarious Sergeant Major Reg Drummond (Matt Butcher), and the other, a group devoted to entertaining. These include drag queen Acting Captain Terri Dennis (James Lee), and gay couple Corporal Len Bonny (Martin Searles) and Lance Corporal Charles Bishop (Jamie Collette). The avowedly straight Steven also has to negotiate his growing relationship with half-Welsh, half-Indian dancing girl Sylvia Morgan (Diana Perini). Ideas of sexuality, race, and class are mobilised and explored.
If that summary was confusing, don’t worry – I was confused too. It was hard to tell whether Privates on Parade had too much or too little plot. There was so much going on it was genuinely hard to keep track of, and yet the actual linear thread of the story seems to be quite insubstantial. It’s almost like there are too many genres cobbled together here: there’s vaudeville and pantomime and dance and all kinds of things going on, as well as scenes between characters that might be interesting in terms of elucidating character but didn’t really go anywhere. Some of it enhances the story, but some of it obscures it.
I feel like this was an actor’s play – there was a lot in here for the performers to sink their teeth into, and they clearly relished this, because there were some fabulous performances. Diana Perini as Sylvia was particularly outstanding, but there were no weak links across the board. However, I’m not quite sure if it’s an audience’s play. It seems strange to say this about a play from the 1970s which won the Olivier award for best new comedy, but it feels like it’s one or two good workshops away from being ready for the stage. It needs taming. It needs a firm hand to turn its messiness into delicious complexity. The direction here goes some way to achieving that – I think Alice Livingstone has done a fine job – but it’s the kind of thing that probably needs to start from the ground up.
Privates on Parade is a lot of fun. There are great performances, and a lot of the songs are genuinely toe-tapping. But there is just way, way too much going on in this piece. It’s fun, but it’s messy.