Oh, the joy of it! 'You'll need a piece of four by two/To get a really good pull through'. Anyone who remembers how to clean the barrel of a .303 rifle, as I did in the school cadet force in the 1960s, will glow with pleasure at hearing Peter Nichols' double entendres and Denis King's wonderful pastiche songs in this revival by Michael Grandage at the Noel Coward theatre.
Grandage directed this play at the Donmar in 2001, in a production for which Roger Allam won an Olivier award as the camp Captain Terri Dennis ('Ooh, that Bernadette Shaw!'). This time around Dennis is played in equally sublime fashion by Simon Russell Beale. I can see why the director has returned for a second bite at Peter Nichols' excellent 1970s play about entertaining the troops, which seems to me now much more than just a period piece.
What were we doing in Malaya in the late 1940s? Well, much the same as we're doing now in Afghanistan. When Peter Nichols wrote his play, British troops had been withdrawn from east of Suez and weren't fighting anywhere, so his message about the futility of overseas military intervention has acquired a new topicality. Sometimes seeing a play second time around produces disillusionment, but in this case I feel I'm discovering depths I didn't see before.
The play has an absurdist streak that didn't register with me when I saw it 11 years ago. When the vile sergeant-major Reg Drummond and the loopy Christian idealist Major Giles Flack combine to root out the use of perfume in the men's ablutions, there are echoes of Joe Orton and early Alan Bennett. It'a model example of how to integrate songs into a play, and its structure is very neat, weaving several stories together and introducing subtle changes of tone that never feel out of place. Like Osborne's The Entertainer, it explores the sunset of Empire through theatrical metaphor, and the passage of time has added depth. This is clear in the final image of the play, when the two mute Chinese 'boys' who have faithfully served up gin and lemonade reappear in elegant suits against a back-projected picture of present-day Singapore, oozing wealth and succcess. Of course, the capitalist nirvana of modern Singapore might not have happened if the communist-led insurgency of the 1940s had succeeded. That thought doesn't undermine the dramatic effectiveness of Nichols' play, just gives it an extra twist.
The casting is universally excellent, as is the music and the typically spare design by Christopher Oram. Russell Beale triumphs for a third time this year, after playing Josef Stalin and Timon of Athens at the National Theatre. He's as near perfect as you can get in a fruity Carmen Miranda number and a very clever Noel Coward pastiche. Joseph Timms, a young actor I've seen on stage in many a lesser role, is excellent as the naive young private Stephen Flowers. He sings and dances in tip-top style in an Astaire/Rogers style number with the Eurasian artiste Sylvia (Sophiya Haque). There's a particularly strong performance by Angus Wright as Major Flack, who becomes much more than a caricature.
It's hard to compare two productions 11 years apart, but the shift from the much smaller Donmar has brought a quite a few benefits. What the play may lose in intimacy it more than gains from being on a larger stage, which gives the songs and choreography a chance to breathe. There's some very good lighting as well.
On the subject of revivals, I shall be interested to see if anyone tackles Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War when the centenary of World War One comes around in a couple of years. And I hope someone who has served in Afghanistan the way Nicholas did in Malaya turns the experience into a stage play as good as this one.