Peter Nichol’s World War II-set comedy Privates On Parade received its world premiere on 22 February 1977, when it was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych. The production went on to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
Based on playwright Nichols’s own experience of national service when he entertained the troops in 1948, Privates On Parade follows members of the Song And Dance Unit South East Asia as they put on shows while dodging bullets. A play with songs, rather than a musical, it blends a war tale, a coming of age journey and a satire on the end of colonialism with vaudeville, bawdy humour and drag.
The 1977 RSC production starred Denis Quilley as the unit’s Captain with a passion for drag and Nigel Hawthorne as the fanatically Christian Major. Both actors won Laurence Olivier Awards – then referred to as the Society of West End Theatre Awards – for their performances. Both went on to cement their places among the West End’s great actors by the time of their deaths; Hawthorne died in 2001, Quilley in 2003.
Hawthorne, who may be best known for his role as Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister, began his stage career in 1950, appearing in The Shop At Sly Corner in Cape Town, making his London debut a year later in You Can’t Take It With You at the Embassy theatre. He appeared many times at the Royal Court in the late 60s and early 70s, though there are few London theatres his talent did not grace. Hawthorne won a second Laurence Olivier Award for his performance in the National Theatre production of The Madness Of George III in 1992.
Quilley, who also starred in the 1982 film version of Privates On Parade, which was directed by original director Michael Blakemore, was a regular in Laurence Olivier’s 1970s National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, appearing in productions including Macbeth, Hamlet and The Tempest. Quilley also has a second Laurence Olivier Award to his name, which he won for his portrayal of the demon barber of Fleet Street in the 1980 production of Sweeney Todd.
Privates On Parade was revived by director Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse in 2001 with a cast including Roger Allam, Malcolm Sinclair, Nigel Harman and James McAvoy.