Review: Privates on Parade (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, August 31)

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Wicked humour and dark social commentary combine in Peter Nichols’ landmark play from 1977, Privates on Parade, being given a light dusting down as a late summer delight at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, until the end of the month.

The Theatre of War has seldom been so charming and naughty as the “play with songs in two acts” focuses on the larger than life members of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA), a military concert party based in Singapore and Malaysia in the late 1940s, entertaining the troops fighting the Chinese Communist soldiers.

With memories of the recent exquisite West End Michael Grandage production so fresh in the mind, it’s a daring company that attempts a new take on this period piece, but even with a few first night jitters there is every reason to consider this a very worthy version indeed.

The drama draws on Nichols’ own experiences and there are some rather fun pastiche songs by Denis King, with enough innuendo liberally sprinkled throughout to ensure that everyone keeps on carrying on up the jungle.

Normally the piece is a star vehicle for the performer playing the outrageous drag artist Terri Dennis, who is required to impersonate the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda and Vera Lynn, and to deliver some wicked lines with glee. Here Jason Sutton (best known for his established drag act Miss Jason) plays the part flamboyantly well, but just misses out on discovering the character’s personal pain and heartache – it would be nice to see behind the theatrical facade.

It is great to see Samuel Holmes, almost a West End veteran, back at Brighton playing the naive Private Steven Flowers, who learns much about life as he joins the unit, falls in love (with the hard-done-by Eurasian Sylvia, played by Harveen Mann) and gains an education that no university could offer. His nemesis is the bigoted and brash sergeant major, played with fine texture by Tobey Nicholls, and there is perfect support from Richard Colvin as hard-bitten but tender-hearted Corporal Bonny, David Heywood as Lance Corporal Bishop, Izaak Cainer as stuffy aircraftman Young-Love, and Richard Hadfield as flight sergeant Cartwright.

Stealing the show is Eric Potts as Major Flack, who totters close to, but successfully avoids, absurdity in his role as the stiff upper lipped officer, oblivious to reality and with cringe-inducing old school jingoism. His delivery of the name of the Malaysian jungle area is enough to bring tears of laughter to the eyes at each mention. A versatile Potts also serves as musical director.

Director Carole Todd could do with tightening up the action here and there and sharpening up the pace considerably, and there are some niggles with the mobile set that need attention. At the moment it ain’t half tepid, mum - but there’s loads of potential in the production and it’s a sure bet that any creases will quickly be ironed out.