Theatre / Privates on Parade Greenwich Theatre, London

The back end of 1995 has been something of a mixed blessing for Peter Nichols. His latest play - the hilarious, artfully interwoven double bill, Blue Murder - was premiered to rave notices. The less good news was that it had to open with a fringe company in makeshift premises over the Register Office in Bristol. Moreover, Nichols seems to be such an untouchable these days that, though there is talk of a tour, the enthusiastic reviews have not had the major producers exactly swarming around the piece. They, apparently, know something about this very funny play that the rest of us have missed.

And now, I'm afraid, one can only muster a qualified gratitude for Paul Clayton's Greenwich revival of Privates on Parade. This is the 1977 play- with-songs which draws on Nichols's experiences in Malaya in the late 1940s in Combined Services Entertainment. With nostalgia as its decoying device, it uses a parodic concert party framework for a stinging attack on the twilight-of-Empire policy of exposing young soldiers to the malarial jungle and to loss of life and limb for the protection of British commercial interests in the East.

There are a number of good things about this new production. As Private Flowers, the Nichols alter ego who loses his virginity, innocence and socialist principles, Damien Matthews does a good job of making his natural fresh-faced appeal increasingly less appealing. Excellent Paul Slack - playing Len, the Brummie who keeps the swearbox well stuffed, while issuing soldiers with such essential items as a "brassiere, sequinned, inflatable, sergeant's" - makes it seem utterly natural that this very ordinary married bloke would have wound up, for comfort, in a touchingly loyal and unfussed sexual relationship with Christopher Penney's dignified, effeminate Charles.

The best acting of the evening, though, comes from Nicholas le Prevost, who hilariously conveys the sublime myopia and earnest, in-a-world-of- his-own sincerity of the Commanding Officer, Major Flack, a muscular Christian out to save Malaya from a new dark age of atheism. What's particularly good about the performance is that, while registering the ridiculousness of this man (whose attempts at verbal slumming with the soldiers, eg "Cor, love-a-duck, you are probably saying", merely show how out of touch he is), Le Prevost lets you see, too, what is affectionate in this portrait of a blimpish Quixote.

For once, the play seems to revolve around this figure rather than Captain "Terri" Dennis, resident queen in the "Queen's Own" regiment and a supreme case of Britannia rougeing the waves. Tony Slattery's performance makes the camp too cold and clinical; you get little sense of the humanity and vulnerability behind his gay bravado. The Dietrich and Carmen Miranda parodies are performed with scant zest, while, visually, the Vera Lynn take-off puts you more in mind of Jessie Matthews as imitated by Nellie the Elephant.

It doesn't help that the staging muffles one or two key moments - particularly the climactic jungle attack which has about as much chilling shock value as a routine power failure. There are some neat ideas: at the end, there's a flash forward to modern Singapore, where the two underrated Chinese- Malayan servants are seen talking into mobile phones, while a newsflash gives the latest report on Nick Leeson. Much of the production serves Nichols well, but the whole does not do him proud.

n Booking (0181-858 7755) to 3 Feb

PAUL TAYLOR

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