Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade at the New Theatre, Newtown.
Show reviewed: Sunday, March 2 at 5pm. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Strong language, nudity, smoking on stage, gun shots and smoke effects.
WHEN Peter Nichols wrote this play in the late 1970s he was only three decades away from the Malayan Emergency of the late 1940s, the setting for this farce. World War II had just ended, God, King and country had been restored and, keep calm, nothing would topple the renewed equilibrium.
Certainly not a bunch of queens.
But hidden away in a far corner of the Empire was an enclave of exactly that. A bunch of queens. The Song And Dance Unit South-East Asia (whose initials are a delightful acronym for a gaggle of gays) is a fictional unit that draws on the playwright’s own experiences with the real-life Combined Services Entertainment Unit. Nichols’ national service included a stint in Singapore.
The fictional 10-man and one-woman unit is a small community united by the disapproval from outside. In the far reaches of Malaya the men (and woman) of the SADUSEA unit are happily gay, some in drag, though there are wives, girlfriends and social straitjackets waiting for them back home.
It was a time when merely coming out was social suicide, far from the sophisticated gay rights issues of today. Being able to marry your same-sex partner was not exactly a priority in 1948 when the play was set nor in 1977 when it was written.
This historical context is important to the play.
Yet the repression of the times didn’t inhibit Nichols’ wicked sense of humour, obvious first and foremost in the title. For that reason alone there has to be a nude scene, or two, and these are retained for Alice Livingstone’s current Mardi Gras revival of this work at the New Theatre in Newtown. Some reviewers lugubriously noted that the nudity of the shower scene is natural, unforced and not gratuitous. Of course, it’s gratuitous! But no one complained.
Hear Henry Moss talk about doing nude scenes in this show [duration 01.18]:
Livingstone has successfully added musical acts to the show, whose correct title is Privates on Parade: A Play with Songs in Two Acts. Among the best of her innovations is a pre-show foyer warm-up, a drag Andrews Sisters who caught everyone’s attention and relentlessly didn’t let go until we were all seated. Responding to me, Livingstone texted the next day: The Andrews in drag were “to set the tone of the world of the play and give David Ouch and Gerwin Widjaja, the two actors playing all the non-speaking Asians, something more to do. Henry Moss was the third.”
I wanted them back later, but alas!
Watch promo clip for the play [duration 01.01]:
The troupe are all very good singers and the numbers featuring combined voices especially terrific. The band did excellent work, surprisingly just three players, piano, cello and drums.
The sheer weight of the show rests on the performance of James Lee as Acting Captain “Auntie” Terri Dennis who spends almost the whole show in drag, including Carmen Miranda, Marlene Dietrich and, of course, Vera Lynn, milking the most from her plaintive cries for a better world coming – “Don’t know where, don’t know when . . .” He’s the senior of the unit and most at home with his sexuality and skilled at the games one must play to re-shape versions of gender into the military. But don’t think Klinger, from M*A*S*H. He’s nothing as one-note as that.
We'll meet again, Don't know where, don't know when, But I know we'll meet again Some sunny day. Keep smiling through Just like you always do, 'Til the blue skies Drive the dark clouds far away. So will you please say hello To the folks that I know, Tell them I won't be long, They'll be happy to know That as you saw me go I was singing this song.Arthur Wilkinson, Ross Parker, Hugh Childs
All the cast are terrific.
Underscoring the song-and-dance, the mix of boots and khaki with billowy frocks and wigs and lipstick, and even the cheeky flashes of privates, there’s a thin sometimes barely perceptible line of terror and tragedy as these men and woman in and out of uniform face enemy fire and attack; of course, just a symbol of the sort of social assault going on back home in the name of God, King and country. ❏
■ Privates on Parade is at the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown, until Saturday, March 8 (final show 5pm). Details, bookings: 9519 3403.
■ The 1983 film version starred John Cleese.
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
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