Play by Peter Nichols, music by Denis King
Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4AU
Booking until: 2nd March 2013
One of the most anticipated theatrical events for 2013 is the star-laden 5-show season which ex-Donmar Warehouse supremo, Michael Grandage, will be staging at the Noel Coward Theatre. First out of the gate for the new company, however, is a rather underpowered revival of Peter Nichols' great 'play with music' from 1977.
Following in the high heels of Denis Quilley and Roger Allam in the lead role, Simon Russell Beale is a delight as Terri, the drag artist and confidante to the troops. It's a beautifully nuanced performance, which manages to draw on the well of disappointment beneath Terri's flamboyant facade. The double-entendres come thick and fast and punctuate his pub-drag impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda, Vera Lynn and Noel Coward.
Nichols' play (it's not a musical) is both a moving personal memoir of his own wartime experiences as well as a rather jaundiced portrait of the British Army at the eclipse of Empire. Set in Malaya in 1948, it follow the exploits of a song and dance troupe brought in to entertain the men as they fight off the communist insurgents.
Angus Wright is gloriously smug as the Gilbertian Major Flack, and Mark Lewis Jones scarily brutish as the Sergeant Major, who has a lucrative side line in black market goods right under the noses of his dim-witted superiors. The tight class distinctions of the time are wonderfully demarcated and military pomposity is wittily skewered. A row breaks out when one soldier demands that only 'a substantive Sergeant' should arrest him. Flack's bone-headed determination to take this motley bunch into the jungle, where they face certain injury and death on the front line, is reminiscent of the Generals in Oh! What a Lovely War. The end game here was, of course, control of the rubber trade and so this war was dubbed merely an 'Emergency', so as not to trigger insurance claims. It is interesting too that it is religious missionary zeal rather than just patriotism that drives this bonkers Major.
The plight of gays in the army of the time is also deftly explored. On the one hand, a blind eye was turned to obvious relationships, but at the same time gays were open to the worst kinds of bullying and exploitation. The newly arrived young Private Flowers (the suitably fresh faced Joseph Timms) is carefully warned about the 'queers' as if they're a different caste and indeed the play charts his own 'sentimental education'. His heady romance with a Eurasian girl in the troupe, Sylvia (Sophiya Haque), is quickly dispensed with when he's confronted with career options, and it falls on Terri to literally pick up the baby by marrying her and taking her back to England.
Unusually for a Grandage production the weaknesses are in the direction. The pace is sluggish and he fails to strike the right balance between Nichols' acutely observed drama and Denis King's lively musical numbers. The latter are often listless and while that might be realistic for a clapped out troupe of semi-professionals, it drains the piece of energy. The fun quotient is lost and the audience quietly admires it when it should be being entertained in the process.
It's a fair attempt though, and a piece worth reviving, but our hopes lie with the rest of the programme, which will feature such luminaries as Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe, Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and Jude Law. You can read more at www.michaelgrandagecompany.com