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Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s production of Privates on Parade by Peter Nichols
Private Steven Flowers is posted to the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA) where, under the leadership of the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis, he learns it takes more than just a uniform to become a man.
Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical account of the British Army in Singapore in 1948 is the starting point for one of the writer’s funniest and most theatrical works. Conceived in the form of a variety show, with music by Denis King, the staging of a concert party by SADUSEA is combined with the troupe’s tour through the Malayan countryside, pursued by Communist guerillas.
Simon Russell Beale plays the cross-dressing Captain Dennis, whose performances of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda form the centrepiece of this award-winning comedy, which charts the journey of young Private Flowers and his extraordinary rites of passage.
‘What Peter Nichols did brilliantly is create a drama with a murderous backdrop about a particular war at a particular time - the Malayan Emergency - but he has done it by following an amateur entertainment troupe into the jungle. So he is able to juxtapose a highly comic scenario against a dark drama, and for a director like me you get the best of all worlds. You get a full-on camp comedy with people putting fruit on their heads and a wonderful document about an under-recorded period of history. From a director’s point of view and an audience’s point of view it’s exciting and interesting all at the same time.’ Michael Grandage
SADUSEA – Ready for action
It’s 1948. Three years after the end of the Second World War, conscription is still in operation in Britain and all ‘healthy males’ aged 17 to 21 must serve two years National Service. Twenty-year-old Steven Flowers is posted to Singapore in South-East Asia, then part of British-ruled Malaya, where the Malayan Communist Party want independence from the UK.
Malaya’s tin and rubber industries are vital to Britain’s post-war recovery and the British refer to the conflict as the ‘Malayan Emergency’ – insurers wouldn’t cover potential losses if it were termed a war. The armed forces of the Malayan Communist Party, however, are unequivocal, calling it the ‘Anti-British National Liberation War’.
Major Giles Flack recognises the seriousness of the situation, the threat to the declining British Empire and a Christian way of life, but his ability to act is limited while in command of a concert party to entertain the troops - the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA). He doesn’t understand the theatre, and least of all the troupe’s leader and star, Captain Terri Dennis - with his cross-dressing and calling men by women’s names.
Private Flowers, recently promoted to sergeant, shows promise and is potential sergeant-major material - following the untimely death of the previous sarnt-major - but the young man claims to have fallen in love with the concert party’s only female performer, ‘Eurasian’ dancer Sylvia Morgan.
Major Flack isn’t going to let that stop his secret plans to lead the company up-country, though, using it as bait to flush out the Malayan Communist Party’s guerilla fighters – a real ‘Jungle Jamboree’. But first he’s got to turn a theatrical troupe into an armed unit… Armed and ready for action.
Director - Michael Grandage
Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer - Paule Constable
Choreographer - Ben Wright
Musical Director - Jae Alexander
Sound Designers - Nick Lidster & Terry Jardine for Autograph
Casting Director - Toby Whale
Wig & Hair Designer - Richard Mawbey
Production Manager - Paul Handley
Company Stage Manager - Katy Bryant
Deputy Stage Manager - Rhiannon Harper
Assistant Stage Manager - Danyal Shafiq
Associate Director - Cathal Cleary
Associate Set & Costume Designers - Lee Newby & David Woodhead
Associate Lighting Designer - Ben Donoghue
Associate Sound Designer - Yvonne Gilbert
Dialect Coach - Penny Dyer
Props Supervisor - Celia Strainge
Costume Supervisor - Natasha Ward
Head of Wardrobe - Tim Gradwell
Head of Wigs & Make-Up - Gemma Flaherty
Deputy Head of Wardrobe - Charlotte Stidwell
Wardrobe Assistant - Rachael McIntyre
Dresser - Evita Aslanidou
Rehearsal Photographers - Marc Brenner & Hugo Glendinning
Production Photographer - Johan Persson
Musical Director/Piano - Jae Alexander
Associate Musical Director - Steve Ridley
Bass - Joe Pettitt
Percussion - James Gambold
Trumpet - Andy Gathercole
Clarinet/Flute/Alto Saxophone - Steve Moss
Peter Nichols was born in Bristol in 1927. After National Service in India, Malaya and Hong Kong, he was an actor in repertory theatre and television for five years and then a teacher in London schools. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He and his wife, to whom he has been married since 1960, now live in Oxford.
His plays include: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health, Forget-Me-Not Lane, The Freeway, Chez Nous, Privates on Parade, Born in the Gardens, Passion Play, Poppy, Blue Murder, So Long Life, A Piece of My Mind and Lingua Franca. Awards include four Evening Standard, two Society of West End Theatres, one Ivor Novello and one Tony.
Peter Nichols discusses his National Service in Asia, shortly after the Second World War, and the ‘education’ he received in the Combined Services Entertainment unit, which was the inspiration for Privates on Parade
‘This was a slumbering time . Pots were about to boil over. In eight months India would go it alone; in 18 China would go red; in a year or so serious trouble would start in Malaya. ‘An emergency they’re calling it,’ says Major Flack in Privates, ‘but that’s softly-softly officialese. Everyone knows it’s the start of the Third World War.’ There was a very good reason not to call it a war. Insurance policies were so framed that they wouldn’t cover the damage. To those being shot or having their hand cut off, it might have felt like a war but they were wrong. It was only an emergency.
From 1948 to 1960 over 100,000 British, Malays, Indians and Chinese were kept busy trying to defeat a guerrilla band of 5,000. Letters from home reminded me that things could have been worse. Friends who’d stayed described an England of cold, boredom and shortages, a London crippled by transport strikes. Yet we would all, without exception, have given the sun-soaked beach, the tropic village, the garden city, for all the miseries of Atlee’s England.
I was bounced about the island [Singapore] like a bagatelle ball till I rolled into the hole I wanted. Nee Soon is a spacious sylvan military camp. Beyond a ravine, terraced on a slope of the far hill, the off-white block of Combined Services Entertainment now – in 1984 – stands empty. On the sloping lawn before our billet, where once was heard the patter of ping-pong and the squeaks and farts of amateur bands rehearsing show tunes, all is quiet but the wind up the ravine stirring leaves on the great overhanging tree that was in our day a sapling. Hardly comparable with rooms at King’s College or Trinity, but this was where my education began.’
This is an edited extract from Peter Nichols’ memoir Feeling You’re Behind (George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd., 1984)
‘By turns aggressive and morose, with a Midlands accent.’
Older than Steven, Len’s been a ‘stores-basher’ in the army - managing supplies - for years. Temperamental, with a tendency for Tourettes, he demonstrates his more vulnerable side with Charles.
‘Sun-tanned, has dyed blond hair, plucked and pencilled eyebrows, matt tan base... His voice is Shaftesbury Avenue pasted over Lancashire.’
The world-weary compere and ‘star’ of the show. He’s had his share of lost loves, but still has a strong sense of right and wrong in spite of his cynicism.
‘Twenty but putting on weight and losing hair, camp but matronly, Yorkshire accent.’
Mature for his age, Charles’ former job as a male nurse lends him a natural caring quality, evident in the way he looks after the others – especially Len, to whom he’s devoted.
‘Twenty-eight, Eurasian, beautiful, speaks with an Indian intonation.’
A principled young woman of Anglo-Asian descent, she’d like to meet and marry the right man and possibly return to England an officer’s wife.
Sophiya opened the production at the Noel Coward Theatre but sadly passed away during the run of the play. The remaining performances were dedicated to her memory and her performance is captured on the footage that accompanies this site.
‘A twenty year old, untouched, sun-tanned conscript who speaks with a West Country accent.’
An earnest young man with a firm belief in education. The newest recruit to SADUSEA, the theatrical troupe proves to be a true life-learning experience for Steven.
‘Twenty-odd, good-looking… London accent, awkward actor.’
Joined up underage, looking for action, and found himself seconded to SADUSEA. An outspoken young man with a mischievous sense of humour, Kevin remains fiercely patriotic.
'Twenty, plain, ungainly, hair shaved well above ears, wearing issue glasses and sweating profusely… He has a plummy voice and a hearty demotic manner.’
Highly-strung, Eric is quick to anger. Volunteering for all duties to ‘keep out of trouble’, he longs to be reunited with his beloved fiance Susan back home in England.
Davina Perera took over the role for the remaining performances.
One of the older members of the company, closer in age to Terri, Reg is an aggressive man, particularly when fuelled by alcohol. He’s involved in various money-making schemes and rackets and is therefore suspicious of most of his colleagues, especially Steven and his interest in Sylvia.
‘A spare ascetic man, authoritative, quiet, with the air of an earnest scoutmaster.’
A true Imperialist who wants to serve his God, his King and country, and has unquestioning faith in all three. He has high hopes for Steven, regarding him as the son he never had.
Silent but always listening… They are the future of Singapore.
Silent but always listening… They are the future of Singapore.
Associate Director Cathal Cleary provides an insight into the rehearsal process for Privates on Parade
The first day on any production can be overwhelming for everyone involved, but day one, in fact the whole of week one, on Michael Grandage’s production of Privates on Parade was a blur of people, activity and excitement on a different scale.
The main reason for this was that Privates marked the start of a completely new venture for director Michael Grandage and producer James Bierman, as they launched into London’s West End with a new company and a season of five productions.
About fifty people squeezed into a rehearsal room at the Jerwood Space for the ‘Meet and Greet’. We stood in a cramped circle and, one-by-one, introduced ourselves to the rest of the company: cast, production, stage management, set, lighting, sound, wigs, associates, covers, etc.
Eventually we sat for a model box display of Christopher Oram’s beautiful design. This was followed by a wonderfully insightful and entertaining discussion between Michael and author Peter Nichols, who spoke vividly of his time serving in Malaya, the inspiration for the play.
One other aspect of week one that set it apart from other productions was the promotional photo and trailer shoot, the highlight of this being the sight of Simon Russell Beale, who plays Captain Terri Dennis, as Carmen Miranda… Dressed in corset, heels, fishnet stockings, full make-up and three feet of fruit on his head! It was a unique and wonderful taster of what the audience will eventually get.
With the novelty of week one fading and the huge number of people in and around the rehearsal room on day one reduced to a streamlined fifteen, the detailed rehearsal work is well underway.
But the cast have a new challenge to master, with the help of some special guests… Sergeant Major James Blair and Sergeant Major Thomas Pal have been called in to drill the slightly nervous looking actors in order to march like genuine soldiers. This is a detail that Michael’s determined to pin down and the authenticity can only be achieved by learning from the real deal.
The marching didn’t exactly come naturally to the cast, but the soldiers treated them as they would any new recruits and eventually got the best out of them. No slacking or moaning was tolerated and soon the results really began to show. For two sessions they worked on marching in straight lines, stopping, turning and the call of arms, all of which was achieved to a very high standard. The soldiers left us to it and promised to return in week five to ensure that nothing had slipped.
Technically classified as a ‘play with songs’ rather than a musical, Privates features eleven numbers in total. There are lots of brilliantly witty and moving songs for the cast to learn - with wonderful music written by composer Denis King - but also lots of choreography to get to grips with, created by Ben Wright.
Michael cast the play with the primary focus on acting ability, rather than singing or dancing skills. We therefore have a group of actors who can sing and dance, rather than singers and dancers who can act, so Ben has his work cut out to get the best dancing out of the cast.
He’s an infectiously fun and motivated choreographer, creating ambitious and physically demanding routines. In week three it’s difficult to see if it’s all going to come together, as the hard-working cast are struggling to get every step down. But Ben has faith in the cast and himself and, like the soldiers, he is drilling his recruits to their limits, never letting their heads drop.
At this stage the shape of the play is really coming together. However, we have two more cast members to add: Chris Chan and Sadou Ueda. Chris and Sadou have been cast as Lee and Cheng respectively - the silent observers who take in every word of the British soldiers they serve. Ignored, sometimes humiliated - always underestimated - Lee and Cheng plot and plan against their colonisers and ultimately triumph in the emergence of modern-day Singapore.
Having no lines of dialogue, Chris and Sadou have a unique challenge to ensure their characters are not ignored by the audience, as they are by the other characters. They need to be menacing yet unassuming, intriguing but not distracting. It’s a challenge they have instantly risen to and they’ve slotted seamlessly into the company.
The final week in the rehearsal room and still a lot of work to do. Everyone’s quietly confident, though, with everything that’s been achieved so far. At the start of the week, Michael told the cast: ‘We’re exactly where we need to be. We’re not ahead of ourselves, we’re not trying to catch up. We’re perfectly placed.’
With several rehearsal room runthroughs planned, plenty of small details were being ironed out, and we had one more major element to add – the band.
Jae Alexander, our superb musical director, has marshalled all the numbers beautifully through rehearsal on his trusty piano, but for the run he’ll be joined by four other musicians - clarinet, trumpet, saxophone and drums. They were introduced to the cast at the start of this week and had a great, fully miked rehearsal. We were able to hear all the numbers fleshed out with a full band, and everyone could really feel the huge impact the musicians would make upon the final show
Privates on Parade – A play with songs by Peter Nichols
Music by Denis King (Samuel French, 1977/2001)
The text of the play
Feeling You’re Behind by Peter Nichols (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984)
Peter Nichols’ autobiography
Peter Nichols: Diaries 1969-1977 by Peter Nichols (Nick Hern Books, 2000)
Peter Nichols discusses Privates on Parade with Dominic Cavendish (13/10/08)