Jul 22 2011 by Alison Anderson, Perthshire Advertiser Friday
THERE’S more to Privates on Parade than meets the eye – and indeed the PFT audience does get an eyeful (the clue is in the title).
On the surface, we get a rollicking good tale in the ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ vein about a unit of artistes of dubious talents spending their National Service entertaining the troops during the Malayan Emergency of 1948.
Laughs comes by the barrelful courtesy of Acting Captain Terri Dennis, the finest Marlene Dietrich impersonator ever to hail from Lancashire, and his bunch of wet-behind-the-ears National Service squaddies who can’t tell a tap step from a tea cup.
They – the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, or SADUSEA – are the force of the ‘Forgotten War’ charged with taking Blighty into the tropical jungle armed only with Fred and Ginger routines, dodgy magic tricks, even dodgier gags and drag acts.
They are a harmless little ensemble who live in fear of their brutal and corrupt Sergeant Major, disdain of their Chinese servants, and indifference to their Commanding Officer, who is convinced that Christian piety can defeat the Red Menace.
Playwright Peter Nichols loosely based Privates on Parade on his own National Service experiences, and Denis King penned the songs. These come thick and fast in this musical which was first produced by the RSC in 1977.
With a chilling updated closing scene, Privates on Parade is given its Scottish premiere by PFT, and indeed this production sits well in this Summer Season, even though the prolific swear words machine-gunned from Corporal Bonny’s foul mouth and the male nudity does cause some sharp intakes of breath among the audience.
The dark side of Privates on Parades develops, subtly at first, and then builds with uncomfortable realism as the futility of war and man’s inhumanity to man (and woman) sweeps away the jocularity which had been so entertaining in the earlier scenes.
Nichols’ script weaves in many serious issues through the campness and comedic elements, not least how one bumbling man in command can cause so much grief for those who have to serve under him.
That bumbling officer, Major Giles Flack, is played with commanding presence by Dougal Lee who, like the rest of the 11-strong cast, show energetic versatility by playing a variety of instruments in this fast-moving production directed by Richard Baron.
The star of the show is Chris Vincent who combines pathos and hilarity as the über-camp Acting Captain Dennis, while turning in some scintillating musical numbers such as his Noel Coward parody ‘Could you please inform us who it was that won the war?’.
Casting is spot-on, including Kinross-shire’s Sandy Batchelor as the virgin soldier Private Steven Flowers and Amanda Gordon as the young mixed-race woman determined to overcome adversity.
Ken Harrison’s set and costumes and Ace McCarron’s lighting design maintain the high standards of this year’s four established PFT productions. Privates on Parade is the fifth production of PFT’s 60th anniversary season, with James Bridie’s Dr Angelus opening next month to complete the diverse drama playing in repertoire at the Theatre in the Hills until the middle of October.