January 8, 2002: Nichols, Privates on Parade

Donmar Warehouse Theatre

A musical — or, perhaps more exactly, A play with music. A revival of Nichols’s 1977 play first performed by the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, London.

For all its caustic satire, a lighthearted piece that only intermittently turns serious or sour. Or, more exactly, a play that uses musical numbers as “on-stage” entertainment, interspersed with doses of mostly cold reality off stage. The setting is Singapore and Malaysia in the aftermath of the Second World War, where a troupe of entertainers has been formed with British soldiers, many of whom are, it turns out, “queer,” “fairies,” “aunties,” — “homosexuals.” But there are also a few straight guys — and a woman, a “half-caste,” daughter of a Welsh Fusilier posted to India before the war and his Indian wife. A new soldier arrives in their midst, who is thought by some to be a spy, but who is really just a young kid, idealistic and well-intentioned, who has a lot to learn and learns it. Short on plot, long on characterization, the play offers a kind of land-locked ship of fools, including the Christian commanding officer who views the world of the British Army as making straight (sorry) the way of the Lord.

The deep plausibility the play has, despite some forced or predictable situa­tions, comes from Nichols’s premise that this predominantly gay troupe has found a mechanism for survival and simultaneously for disguise. The natural propensity, as Nichols seems to understand it, for exhibitionism of these men finds an entirely appropriate outlet in the marvellously entertaining and varied song-and-dance acts — solos, duos, and ensembles — that they rehearse and perform for whatever audiences they can attract. The musical acts are thus part of the historical nature of the fiction, instead of being a convention imposed from the outside. This format makes it possible for Nichols, aided by his composer-colleague Denis King, to ring the changes on adverse experience while pursuing the idea that the show must go on.

And it does. These are very talented actors (who can also sing), very well rehearsed and choreographed (by director Michael Grandage and choreographer Scarlett Madsmin). The best of them is Roger Allam, a “queen” doubling as an “auntie,” who has a great speaking voice, wonderfully exact timing, and a deliciously ironic sense (as his character) that the world has gone permanently awry and it therefore might as well be enjoyed to the utmost. His character is also the most humane and sympathetic of them all.

The woman, Sylvia Morgan, played with great warmth and maturity by a very light-skinned Indian actress, Indira Varma, is quite perfect for the role. She can hoof it with the best of them and hold her own — both as actress and character — with this big bunch of men. Her character, Sylvia, mature and worldly beyond her twenty-eight years (she has known adversity on the streets of Calcutta after her father suddenly died), is a realist and a survivor. She has found it necessary to welcome the advances of the British Sergeant Major Reg  Drummond (Nichols is good at choosing names with just the right load of cliché about them), leaving her pregnant. After much of the unit is killed or wounded in another, more serious melee, in Act II, the newcomer, Stephen Flowers, who has fallen in love with her and asked her to marry him — and who thinks the baby she is carrying is his — gets cold feet and gives her a large amount of money for an abortion. In a nice comic turn of events, Captain Dennis marries her out of pity and sympathy; his horror at the possibility that she would perhaps do away with the baby that had survived the onslaught that had killed or left impotent so many of their colleagues is simple and affecting. In that moment we can perceive where Nichols’s own sympathies lie, and where the human center of the play identifies itself. Nichols is a sharp-tongued enemy of pretense, hypocrisy, and sham, and is very good at exposing it for what it is by urging us to laugh at it.

We do. This is a very funny play, with lots of the “strong language” (along with strobe lighting) that the audience is warned about in advance with a sign on the way in). Double entendre has a field day in this play — as in the title itself, referring not only to the troupe of enlisted men who make up the bulk of the cast, but to the several instances of male nudity and, less literally, to the baring of personal, private feelings, dilemmas, and other things normally covered up in life that war has a way of drawing out. One of the best things about the play is Nichols’s fine command of language and his expert sense of how to write dialogue that is at the same time crisp and fluent: nothing wasted, everything well judged. Roger Allam is especially good at articulating this kind of speech, and a master at combining verbal and facial nuance (what a treat it would be to see him play Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest). But all these actors, with the possible exception of the Cockney Corporal Len Bonny, who took some real getting used to, were up to the mark.

What a fine way to begin the latest series of excursions to London theaters! And with another play by Nichols in store — A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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