The Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward starts gently with one of this year’s many “alternatives to panto” (Scrooge, Once Upon A Mattress, Cinderella at the St James). It does beg the question, why does nobody just bite the bullet and mount a big old-fashioned star-studded pantomime in the West End? Mind you this revival of Peter Nichols 1977 play with songs by Nichols and Denis King is so liberally peppered with “language”, as my dear old great aunt Polly used to call it, and naked men that even the most enlightened 7 year old might be begging to be taken to The Cherry Orchard next year.
It is 1948 and SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit, South East Asia) are entertaining the troops during the oft forgotten “Malayan Emergency”. Led by the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis, an old school queen with a battle scarred heart and shoulders big enough for everyone to cry on, the motley bunch head off the beaten track on an ill thought campaign to entrap the enemy. Along the way the only female member gets pregnant, boys become men and officers are shown to be fools who can’t see further than the end of their nose.
However, the main reason for the existence of this production of this undeniably creaky play is as a vehicle for Simon Russell Beale to have a ball as Capt Dennis. Whether in drag as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda or in civvies pricking pomposity with double entendres, Beale allows Dennis’s tenderness to shine and his complicity with the audience when commenting on the action gives the play its heart.
The piece itself is warm and witty but showing its age like a Betamax VCR and the dips in audience interest when Beale is not on stage are palpable. The remainder of the cast do their best and in most cases literally give their all, but nothing can disguise the fact that what once must have seemed edgy is now a period piece akin to the Carry Ons and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum with questionable attitudes to other cultures and homosexuality.
It sounds like I hated it, I didn’t I had a laugh hence the four stars, the Vera Lynn number complete with white cliffs and bluebirds is worth the price of a ticket alone, but in the cold grey light of day it has left me feeling empty. Maybe more songs from Simon Russell Beale in a frock would have helped. Here’s a thought why not get him in the West End as Widow Twankey next year, surely that would pack them in? Michael, Cameron, Andrew, Nica, Max, Howard, Rosemary can you hear me?