If versatility is the sign of a good actor then Simon Russell Beale’s talent is undeniable. In the space of just six months, he has gone from Shakespeare’s honourable and ruined Lord Timon to a flamboyant cross-dressing captain in Peter Nichols’ Privates On Parade.
Marking the first of five productions playing as part of the Michael Grandage Company’s first season, Nichols’ 1977 farce sets a high precedent for those set to follow.
Set amid the Malayan campaign at the end of World War II, Privates On Parade tells the story of Private Steven Flowers, a young man from Swindon who has left his hometown to join the Song and Dance Unit in South East Asia where, serving under Russell Beale’s effeminate captain, he soon learns what it takes to become a man but, at the same time, how easily his frock-loving comrade can become a woman.
There’s less masculinity on stage at the Noël Coward theatre during director Michael Grandage’s opening production than in an all-female version of Mary Poppins. Donning costumes worthy of Lily Savage’s wardrobe, Russell Beale is less captain and more fairy godmother as he flounces across the stage, draping himself over anything that stays still long enough and seizing every moment of silence in which to crank up the campness and entertain his audience with extravagant stories and impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda.
The Olivier Award-winner is supported by an equally strong cast with John Marquez’s laugh-inducing performance as the dim and tactless Bonny, who could fill a swear jar quicker than Gordon Ramsay, Joseph Timms as the young and naïve recruit and Brodie Ross and Sam Swainsbury as a duo with more camp than Glastonbury. Angus Wright’s smut-hating Major provides the only serious and authoritative figure but even Sophiya Haque’s vulnerable Sylvia Morgan has a hint more masculinity than the majority of the regiment.
Set against Christopher Oram’s dramatic cracked stonework set, which provides a striking contrast to the luxury of the Song and Dance Unit’s stage, the Michael Grandage Company’s debut is a tight and polished production that brings to light issues of corruption, colonial politics and gay relationships within the armed forces.
With nudity, dirty jokes and bad language, this isn’t a festive outing that everyone will enjoy, but along with a charming and hilarious mix of comedy, double entendres and music, Russell Beale’s dolled up Terri Dennis would give even the very best pantomime dame a run for her money.