Simon Russell Beale – as you've never seen 'her' before

Privates on Parade, the National Service comedy with its famous drag acts, is revived next week, giving one of Britain's biggest stage stars the cross-dressing challenge. Its author, Peter Nichols, recalls the real army revue that inspired the play

Unlike novels, plays are cryogenic. Novels are taken from their shelves, browsed in, read or reread. Most plays remain frozen in archives and libraries, awaiting the kiss of life.

Three of mine that have lain dormant for a dozen years are now being thawed out: Privates on Parade is in rehearsal to open Michael Grandage's season at the Noel Coward theatre, previews from 1 December; when this closes in March, Passion Play opens 50 yards down the road at The Duke of York's; at the same time A Day in the Death of Joe Egg will be performed in Liverpool then Kingston, a motorway pile-up of stuff done between the 1960s and 1980s.

At rehearsals of the first one, I spoke for 15 minutes on the background to the "musical", which it has almost become thanks to the tunes' composer Denis King. The cast (mostly in their twenties) must have wondered who this grey codger was, — myopic, deaf-aided, not even wearing trainers, who during the reading laughed more than anyone else at jokes he had himself written (or, in some cases, stolen). His talk, interspersed with readings from his memoir Feeling You're Behind, tried to explain the background and what the Malayan Emergency was, even what Malaya was.

He didn't dodge the question of whether the play at all resembles his dimly remembered reality but said he'd been there in 1947, in CSE, a pan-services outfit formed to entertain teenage troops who longed only to get home and start their adult lives. The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) ended with the war and ours took its place: Every Night Something Awful became Chaos Succeeds ENSA.

Among those who escaped the tedium of poorly paid national service, with its guard and cookhouse duties, by singing, dancing and trying to be funny, were the future stars Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams and the film director John Schlesinger, at this time a conjuror. In order not to be "returned to unit", we contrived a revue that became in time the basis of Privates.

The first departure from reality was that we weren't privates but were all given the rank of acting sergeant, in the military sense, that allowed us to be entertained in NCOs' messes up-country and in Hong Kong. But the present title was too good a double entendre to miss. I'd first named it "Jungle Jamboree" but Lady Antonia Fraser said she much preferred the other. Stanley Baxter went to see its first production fearing I'd commit some actionable slander. He came away disappointed, saying, "It was nothing like the truth." It's a mish-mash or collage gathered from my two and a half years in the RAF before, during and after the period in question. The showbiz unit lasted only eight months of my 85 years but in my memoir, the chapter describing it, "My University", is more than 40 pages long. This, too, was meant to be accurate but is also a pack of lies thereby resembling the entire nostalgia industry of which it could be said to be a small part.

I hardly knew but studiously observed Barri Chatt, the drag queen who is to be embodied by Simon Russell Beale. He was a civilian performer who had, in his words, "signed on for sun and fun". The one scene that's practically verbatim is at a dress-rehearsal where Terri/Barri opposes the corrupt and criminal sergeant-major, whose future suicide and military funeral – in a billet watched by several other men – became a hilarious party piece for both Kenneth and Stanley, an event since embroidered out of all recognition. "I am not I," wrote Evelyn Waugh at the end of Brideshead Revisited, "thou art not he or she; they are not they." And Private Flowers isn't I either, though like him I blossomed during those months, not (regrettably) through the tuition of a beautiful Eurasian dancer as in Privates. It was in my previous years in Calcutta that I observed the real-life person who inspired her character and the Madame Butterfly-like story of her love for a British soldier. I didn't meet the person who inspired Eric Young-Love, whose fate is to keep on conjuring even when the lights go out, till my last months of service in a billet at Changi, the notorious Japanese prison-camp. Kenneth and Stanley don't appear in the show at all but are its unacknowledged co-authors.

After I'd talked to the cast for 15 minutes, Michael Grandage told me I'd delighted them long enough. Perhaps a better metaphor than cryogenic for my appearance that day would be as one of the un-dead. I had in fact once played the bloodthirsty Count Dracula on the stage of the present home of Scottish Opera.

Now in my eighties, it often feels that I'm half-alive among the gone-before. Kenneth and John are no more; Stanley survives. From the original show of 1976, Denise Quilley and Nigella Hawthorne have only just been joined by Joanna Melia at that great audition in the sky, as Terri would put it. I Imagine their long silence before the sonorous voice from a dark auditorium: "We'll let you know."

In 1948, before the real Emergency began, we had sun, beaches, an exotic city and land to explore; but still we mostly longed for our drizzley northern homes, as the show's final song affirms: "And when we're there we'll never more roam/ From the heart of home sweet home."

'Privates on Parade', the first in a five-play season by the Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2 (0844 482 5141; michaelgrandagecompany.com) to 2 March

What a drag: How Simon Russell Beale becomes Carmen Miranda

Simon Russell Beale who plays Captain Terri Dennis has three major drag numbers as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and the Brazilian film star and singer Carmen Miranda. Even when he goes off stage to transform into a woman, it only takes a couple of minutes for the make-up team to stick on his eyelashes and stick on some lipstick.

He already has basic make up on anyway and he wears a male corset under his shorts and top to keep him trim throughout the show. His arms, legs and chest have been waxed, his hair dyed and his eyebrows plucked – he has been given an all-over fake body tan. For his change into Carmen Miranda, he wears a bodice with inbuilt breasts, a wraparound skirt and platform shoes specially made for his large feet. The turban and headpiece is all one piece – covered in beads and fruit. He wears a wig and a bra for the other numbers.

After the Dietrich scene, he changes on stage. He removes the hat, the wig and make up, then he takes off the dress and the breasts. He is left there in his corset and his stockings when a young soldier knocks on his door. We watch him put on his sailor outfit for another number.

Charlotte Cripps

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