Music: Denis King
Lyrics: Peter Nichols
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
War apparently, is hell. And yet World War Two has proven to be bumper source of inspiration for musicals, comedy and musical comedies. Combine this with the British population’s love of seeing men dressed up as women and Privates on Parade was always destined to be a success. And after over thirty five years, the cast album is granted its premiere on shiny disc.
Following the exploits of a British army entertainment unit in South East Asia sees it pitched somewhere between the ‘Honey Bun’ segment of South Pacific and the long-running BBC sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (both of which pre-date this musical). However, as this show was written for stage in the late ‘70s, the humour is a lot smuttier than anything Rogers and Hammerstein would write or that the BBC could broadcast – which probably makes this a pretty accurate depiction of the sort of material that these units actually performed for the troops.
Just like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum the show is based after Germany’s defeat in 1945, during and immediately after the time when the Allies were trying to defeat the Japanese in Asia. Denis King’s music offers many styles but keeps them grounded with a music hall feel which is certainly helped by the minimal orchestra. Several of the numbers including S.A.D.U.S.E.A. (Song And Dance Unit South East Asia) are annoyingly catchy. Peter Nichols’ amusing lyrics are laced with double (and some cases single) entendres which make a song like “The Little Things We Used To Do” go from a lilting ballad into something altogether dirtier. Meanwhile “Black Velvet” means that you will never listen to “Greensleeves” the same way again.
The cast includes Nigel Hawthorne as the stuffy commanding officer and Denis Quilley as the civilian show director. Hawthorne’s blustering performance of stiff-upper-lippery is excellent and although Quilley has many camp lines to deliver, his portrayal is a lot more subtle than one might see in shows such as La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots or Pricilla. However this does not stop his character from slipping into various female guises including Carmen Miranda for “The Latin American Way” and Marlene Dietrich for “The Movie To End Them All”.
The show won the Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year and the Best Musical Ivor Novello Award in 1977. Admittedly these awards seem a little difficult to believe judging by this CD recording which is fun and entertaining but hardly world changing or original. The ghost of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum does hover closely over this soundtrack and it is too easy to picture Melvyn Hayes and Don Estelle performing the songs. Taken on its own merits however, this is an entertaining and amusing bit of nostalgia – even if you may need to ask granny and the kids to leave the room before listening to it.