King St’s New Theatre had a good year in 2013, nominated at the Sydney Theatre awards for its production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. This year, it opens with Peter Nichols’ 1977 play with songs, Privates on Parade, in which the young members of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA) posted to Singapore in 1948 must entertain the troops, contend with their own sexuality and generally have adventures in the empire.
There are lots of dance numbers, as well as healthy doses of shower-room nudity and towel flicking; like a boarding school adventure written by Oscar Wilde with all the subtext made text. The troupe’s spiritual leader is Captain Terri Dennis, who likes to sing, dance, and wear heels. Into this motley crew comes Private Steven Flowers, barely out of his teens, decent and callow.
Privates is a Mardi Gras sponsored event, but it is aiming for mass appeal. The director of this production, Alice Livingstone, is confident that “anybody who enjoys a musical will like it. It’s a lovely story about young men who are thrown into a very alien environment and how they cope with it. And it’s very funny as well. It’s got little moments of poignancy and [spoiler alert!] I guess you could say a tragic moment, but it’s essentially a play that’s very uplifting. It’s an entertainment. It’s very much based, in its form, on all of the old styles of theatre, like vaudeville, music hall, panto and all of those British traditions, so we’re very much using that format as well in the way that we present it”.
The show does so by making the audience part of its setting. When the curtain closes, the performers come out in front to do their routines for the troops – us. When the curtain opens, the show is over and we’re privy to the real lives of the company, as it were, behind the scenes. Though, it has to be said, one is hardly more flamboyant than the other. It’s a neat concept.
I ask Livingstone what it’s been like staging a musical in the New and she’s frank: “It’s hard, because of course a musical demands not just looking at the scenes and the characters and the story, but you’ve got the choreography, you’ve got all the songs as well, so you’ve got to have dance rehearsals, musical rehearsals, so we’ve had to do a lot in our four weeks”. Helping her cause is the fact that the show’s musical director, John Short, worked on the original production of Privates, and knows the show backwards.
The cast, too, is generally strong, though it has to be said that this kind of English comedy is particularly unforgiving. As with Loot at the STC a few years ago, any flubbed lines kill the momentum dead. The speed at which bon mots are exchanged makes any disruption to their rhythm jarring. The show is probably most successful in its quietest moments, and particularly those featuring the two young romantic leads (Diana Perini and David Hooley) whose tenderness, amid the wild caricature swirling around them, is touchingly convincing.
Emboldened by their nomination last year, it will be interesting to see where the New goes in 2014. As Livingstone puts it, “it [the nomination] was a lovely recognition of the quality of the shows that we do, and the fact that we are very much a force on the independent scene. We often do plays that no one else will do, and we do them on very limited resources – but we always do them well”.
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