This is the first of the new Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (which I still subversively think of as the Albery, formerly the New – I hate these theatre name changes!) and we’ve booked for four of the five shows, as they looked so tempting. That obviously implies that one of them didn’t quite so tempting – I wonder which! It was with some trepidation that we took our seats – F15 and F16 in the stalls – as we’ve chosen the same ones for all the shows. So we were relieved to discover that the view to the stage is fine, so long as you don’t have a huge Man Mountain sitting in front of you, as Mrs Chrisparkle did. Gallantly, I offered to swap seats with her. Coquettishly she declined. Manfully I insisted. This could have gone on some time, but sense prevailed, we swapped, and it was me who ended up peering past the Man Mountain at odd angles, dodging and weaving like a boxer from side to side as the action moved around on the stage. To be honest, it was only the scene with Sylvia and Flowers in bed together that was really difficult to see. But if Mrs C had stayed in her seat, she would have attempted to see past him for a while but eventually would have given up and tuned out.
Anyway – I’d been looking forward to seeing this show for ages. Not only since it was announced as part of the Grandage season, but actually I’ve been waiting for a revival of this play for years. I missed the Roger Allam version about ten years ago, much to my annoyance. I’ve been a great fan of this play ever since I saw it in 1978, at the Piccadilly Theatre I believe, with Denis Quilley as Terri Dennis, Nigel Hawthorne as Major Flack and Joe Melia as Bonny – three great performances, and sadly, none of them with us any more. The original soundtrack LP was one of the most frequent visitors to my turntable, and I know Denis King’s songs back to front and inside out. They are such a clever parody of those 1940s wartime performers, played in this show superbly by Jae Alexander’s combats-clad band. It’s an enormously funny play, dotted with moments of real sadness too; Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical account of his Malayan army days was obviously a labour of love.
If you don’t know the story, I’ll try not to ruin it for you. Young, inexperienced Private Steven Flowers – the Peter Nichols character – turns up in Malaya to be attached (“heaven!”) to Acting Captain Terri Dennis, who is in charge of entertaining the troops. Flowers joins his motley crew and we see his character develop and mature as he learns about life and love – very quickly – against the backdrop of the army shows and the Malayan Emergency of 1948. However, the text of the play has obviously undergone some changes. In my 1977 Faber edition, without giving the story away, a third character joins Lee and Cheng, the two Chinese attendants, which gives an additional dimension to the story. By the time I saw it in 1978, that element of the storyline had been dropped, and for the better I am sure. Nevertheless I was very disappointed at a story change in this production, which comes in the final scene, and which questions the motives of one of the major characters. I won’t say more on the subject, but not having seen the play since 1978 I wonder when this rather unfortunate change was introduced. If you’ve got the tiniest clue as to what I’m on about, I’d be interested to know.
The only other changes I noted were that a couple of the songs got shortened a little, which was probably a sensible decision. The reference to Room 504 in the Noel Coward song has been dropped – it’s an old Vera Lynn song apparently – and 35 years on no one would get it. I didn’t get it the first time round. This highlights a slight problem with the play today, in that few people really remember Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Flanagan and Allen any more. Mrs C had no idea why Bonny and Bishop were dressed as they were for “Sunnyside Lane” – Bud Flanagan’s fur coat was a new concept to her. I also thought it was interesting that in Simon Russell Beale’s interpretation of Vera Lynn singing “The Little Things We Used To Do” he didn’t really attempt a vocal impersonation of the Force’s Sweetheart, unlike Denis Quilley’s original performace. Mr Quilley did hilarious vowel stranglings, “singing all those little things we uuuuuused to doooooooo”. Everyone in the 1978 audience recognised Miss Lynn’s vocal tic, but today they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. People still recognise a Noel Coward delivery of course, and Mr Beale’s performance of that was much closer to an impersonation. I also noted that a change in the song “Privates on Parade” removed Major Flack’s impression of the Chinese saying “velly solly, no fight now, all lellow men back to land of lising sun”; no doubt trying to reduce the play’s potential for accusations of racism.
Anyway that’s enough of what’s not in the show. It’s still a very funny, very moving, life-enhancing production, contrasting glamour and war, art and life, youth and age, and with a great insight into the nature of relationships. At its heart – with heart being the operative word – is Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a queen amongst men, extraordinarily decent and kind, a hugely talented artiste, but probably not much of a soldier. He’s played, out loud and proud, by the great Simon Russell Beale, an actor whom we associate with Shakespeare and Chekhov, the RSC and the National Theatre; so if you haven’t seen the camper side of him before, you’re in for a surprise. He takes to the role with supreme comfort and confidence; he’s a natural female impersonator, and he gives a performance brimming with entertainment. The audience loves him, and you feel like it’s a mutual arrangement. He’s very funny and very serious, giving off all the showbiz sparks yet revealing the unglamorous truths beneath. Fantastic.
Private Steven Flowers is played superbly well by Joseph Timms, including using a really good Swindon accent. He’s infectious with enthusiasm, mixing the bravado of youth with inexperienced vulnerability. He’s excellent in his awkward first scene with Sylvia, very credibly not quite knowing how to stand or where to look as she changes her costume. Through the show, as he learns how to be a man his confidence comes on in leaps and bounds, and you can see it in his bearing during the “Privates on Parade” routine where he’s revelling in his promotion. We both really enjoyed his performance; my only slight quibble is that he does have a slight tendency to talk whilst the audience is still laughing at the line before, so that you can’t actually hear what he says. His Sylvia is played by Davina Perera, a very elegant Ginger Rogers, and warmly endearing as the Welsh/Indian musical performer who’s had to endure being used and abused sexually to maintain security but who longs for love to take her back to the valleys. I also enjoyed very much her interplay with the wicked Reg; moving, resentful, defeated.
The other members of the troupe are all played really well, revealing the humour and tragedy in their characters. Harry Hepple, excellent in Pippin at the Menier last year, is a quietly tender Charles Bishop and gives a super rendition of Sunnyside Lane. Sam Swainsbury hits just the right note of brash but believable as Kevin Cartwright; he does a great performance with Mr Timms of The Movie To End Them All, and his final scene where he’s desperately trying to hang on to all his youthful hope and exuberance against all odds very nearly brought a tear to my eye. John Marquez gives a great comic performance of Len Bonny’s foul-mouthed warm-hearted hapless Brummie and his “Charlie Farnes-Barnes” scene brought the house down. Brodie Ross’ Eric Young-Love, besotted with a sense of status, priggishly over confident in love and vacuously prepared for fisticuffs to prove his heterosexuality, is another perfectly pitched performance. As a contrast to all these likeable characters, Mark Lewis Jones gives a brilliant performance as the vicious Sergeant Major Reg Drummond; brutish with Sylvia, despising the bum boys (his phrase), yet you can understand why he would appear strangely charismatic to the suggestible Flowers over a few gin-and-tonics.
The other main member of the cast is Angus Wright as Major Flack. A beautifully funny role, written so cleverly by Mr Nichols, the Major is an essentially decent fuddy-duddy whose devotion to God blinds him from seeing everything else that’s staring him in the face. Now, maybe it’s because I remember Nigel Hawthorne’s performance so fondly, and because Mr Hawthorne’s voice for this role was so hilariously reminiscent of Colonel Hathi from the Jungle Book, that I have to say that I thought Angus Wright underplayed the role of Major Flack too much. Many of Flack’s funny lines simply got lost in the delivery – not enough emphasis, not enough volume, a little too rushed. Maybe the idea was to make Flack less cartoony and more realistic, but I’m not sure it worked. One other criticism relates to the significant scene towards the end, when all the lights go off during the magic show. The subsequent dramatic chaos that follows, for me, lacked an impact; and the tragic conclusion of that scene suffered as a result, so that it wasn’t as alarming or as sad as I expected.
Nevertheless, I still think it’s a fantastic play and there are some really superb performances to enjoy. I was 17 when I first saw it, and it was one of those great occasions when I came out of a show a different person from the one that went in. I hope that today it can still have that impact on its audience.
I would like to add how sorry I was to hear that Sophiya Haque, who played Sylvia for the first couple of weeks of the run, lost her fight against cancer only a few days ago. My condolences go out to her family and friends. I can only guess at the sadness that must have caused the rest of the company, and they are dedicating the remaining performances to her memory.