IoS theatre review: Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, London; Viva Forever! Piccadilly Theatre, London; In the Republic of Happiness, Royal Court, London

Simon Russell Beale is priceless as the drag queen built like a tank, but for newer recruits to the stage he's a hard act to follow

Simon Russell Beale's Terri is as camp as a row of tents in Privates on Parade, Peter Nichols's 1977 seriocomedy about a British Army song and dance unit in Singapore and Malaysia, entertaining the troops in 1948.

The production launches the Michael Grandage Company on its star-studded residency in the West End. And Beale instantly steals the limelight as Terri, the unit's drag queen – built like a tank and decked out in super-flamboyant frocks for his musical numbers. Clumping around in a Carmen Miranda outfit, Beale puts most pantomime dames in the shade, with a mass of flounces sprouting from his barrel chest and fruit stockpiled on his head. He is up to his ears in double entendres too, cocking an eyebrow with priceless comic timing.

In this rite-of-passage drama, Private Flowers (Joseph Timms) is the straight, initially homophobic innocent who learns that the military includes gays with hearts of gold. Nevertheless, the unit has to contend with a bigoted sergeant (Mark Lewis Jones) and a gung-ho, superciliously racist commander (Angus Wright) who instructs Flowers to ditch his mixed-race sweetheart, Sylvia (Sophiya Haque).

The let-down, if you're expecting uniformly top-notch acting, is that the younger cast members don't pass muster, and the storylines are sketchy. That said, Nichols is experimenting with the borderline between a play and a revue. Banter in the dressing rooms flows seamlessly into the unit's show-time routines.

Beale's image will be burnt on the mind's eye for a long time to come, I suspect, as he poses in a blonde wig under a golden spotlight, head thown back in a Kenneth Willliams-like rictus . When given the chance, he also plumbs depths of acute loneliness and simmering indignation. Still, his performance on press night looked fractionally anxious. Was he under the weather or worried about the synchronised dance moves? Meanwhile the usually excellent Wright seemed uncertain if his pontificating character should lecture the onstage chaps or us in the auditorium. Perhaps best give Grandage's cast another week to warm up.

Don't race to catch the new musical Viva Forever! If the title is anything to go by, it's destined to run and run. Or is this tawdry stage show about a tawdry TV series – with ill-fitting Spice Girls songs – a vision of dumbed-down British culture feeding on itself with an inane, vampiric grin?

In case you've not been bored to death already by endless talent shows on the box, Jennifer Saunders has here churned out a jawdroppingly witless script for producer Judy Craymer (previously of Mamma Mia!) wherein wannabe girl-band members are selected for a televised competition called Starmaker.

The foursome swear eternal friendship only to bust up when a mean-as-hell panel judge, Sally Dexter's Simone, prowling around like Cruella de Vil, picks only one of them for the final round. Though supposedly a grrrrl with a mind of her own, Hannah John-Kamen's Viva lets herself be isolated without phone contact, put on a needless diet, made-over to others' tastes, then dragged into a sensationalist set-up, to meet her birth mother as the cameras roll.

John-Kamen's performance is nicely grounded. So is Sally Ann Triplett's as her hippyish adoptive mum, but she and Viva's buddies – while supposedly gatecrashing Starmaker – are surely playing right into its hands. Indeed, I kept hoping there would be some dark, final twist, in which, like The Truman Show, it turned out everyone had cynically signed up to Simone's faux world.

At the curtain call, where the actual Spice Girls were bundled up from stalls to stage, Victoria Beckham looked miserably embarrassed while the rest obligingly whooped.

Finally, in the avant-gardist Martin Crimp's satirical, absurdist and strangely gripping new play In The Republic of Happiness, a suburban family sit stiffly over Christmas dinner, with polite small talk veering off into senile fantasies and vitriolic rants. Like some kind of visitation, Paul Ready's possibly predatory Uncle Bob materialises out of nowhere in a silver Puffa jacket, bearing tidings of how his partner, Madeleine, would like to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Michelle Terry's Madeleine then appears, with a silky smile, saying she and Bob's new life, far away, is going to be thin and clean, like a pane of glass. Next thing you know, the cast have turned into some kind of middle-class cult, smiling at us and spouting – as if reiterating rote – about how individualistic they are; how none of their life choices are political; and how they're on the path through personal trauma, to happy, gym-fit immortality.

Dominic Cooke's excellent cast, including Emma Fielding and Stuart McQuarrie, are teasing and riveting. A few sequences are prolix and the interspersed rock songs lack bite, but Crimp's unhinged structures are potently dreamlike, startlingly comical, and disturbing.

'Privates on Parade' (0844 482 5141) to 2 Mar; 'Viva Forever!' (0844 871 3055) booking to 1 Jun; 'In the Republic of Happiness' (020-7565 5000) to 19 Jan

Critic's Choice

Merrily We Roll Along , Sondheim's regret-tinged comic musical about stardom and wrecked friendships, is superbly directed by Maria Friedman at the Menier, London (to 9 Mar). Or catch Going Dark at the Young Vic (to 22 Dec), an immersive, poignant weave of luminous lectures on the universe and the tragedy of an astrophysicist going blind.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk