A LETTER FROM LONDON: Merrily We Roll Along, Privates on Parade, Constellations, Kiss Me, Kate and More

By Ruth Leon
03 Jan 2013

Simon Russell Beale in Privates on Parade.
Photo by Johan Persson

Friday — What a treat, that great actor Simon Russell Beale, rightly lauded on both sides of the Atlantic for his classical roles in Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and Stoppard, bumps up as the drag queen in Peter Nichols' wonderful Privates on Parade, a love letter to the ramshackle troop-entertainment company he joined in Malaya just after the war. Beale plays a camp captain who has found his perfect job in the army, directing an ill-assorted bunch of well-meaning troopers who've never sung or danced a step in their lives in dreadful song-and-dance numbers to cheer up their compatriots. It's Peter Nichols' best play, I think, even more poignant than A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Privates is a study of men rubbing along together in a desolate army unit miles from civilization, with a martinet for a commander and a sadist for a sergeant, interspersed with the songs themselves, wonderfully created by Denis King. Some made me laugh until tears ran down my cheeks, particularly the perfect Noel Coward pastiche, delivered by doughy Simon Russell Beale with the aplomb of the slender sophisticated Coward. If you know Coward, and my husband was his authorized biographer, it's even funnier, but there were plenty of laughs to go around for the uninitiated too. This is, no contest, the funniest play in London, with perhaps the best cast. Of course nobody's noticing the rest because Simon Russell Beale is so bloody wonderful. Don't imagine he's slumming, though — this kind of comedy is as tough as any Shakespeare to master and the concentration from the entire company rewards any audience.