Privates on Parade, Donmar Warehouse, London

The Donmar's latest all-singing, all-dancing offering is all rouge, ruffles and rifles.
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The Independent Culture

A sign out front warns patrons about strong language and strobe lights, but it might be more helpful to give the more sensitive of disposition a hint about Roger Allam. On the other hand, I think nothing would have prepared me for this beefy actor, known for playing slightly stuffy English gents, in high heels, frilly knickers, and a small mountain of slap as the star of The Blue Angel. After that, his appearance in a ruffled skirt, with a pineapple on his head, just sort of rolled over me.

Rouge and ruffles apart, though, is this a convincing interpretation of Acting Captain Terri Dennis, leader of an entertainment unit in Malaya during the 1948 "emergency"? Allam seems a bit overdeliberate and insufficiently feline as the screaming Queen of the Straits, but, Jessica Christ, to use one of his ejaculations, is he funny – fingering, with feigned insouciance, the lilac scarf that gives a needed touch of colour to his uniform, accentuating a punchline with a tongue that roams around his cheek like an eight-ball weaving its way to the side pocket, his upper lip sidling about in an emotion that has, as yet, no name.

Allam, however, is a sensible and symbolic choice for this large and vital part in the play that Peter Nichols based on his experiences in just such a troupe – the original for Captain Dennis was Kenneth Williams. The importance of the role requires some gravitas, not uninflected campery, and the casting against type points up the duality and ambiguity of this constantly unsettling play. The sergeant-major, a straight arrow who warns against "funny business in the ablutions", pimps for rent boys and sells guns to the enemy.

The company's only female, a super-genteel Eurasian who dreams of strolling on Pall Mall with members of the Junior Carlton Club, is a whore. A blokeish working-class recruit is less devoted to his wife than to his male sweetheart. A private, trained in intelligence, does not even know how babies are made.

And no one realises that the silent Chinese servants aren't studying the camp maps out of aesthetic interest.

In Michael Grandage's triumphant production, all these cross-currents flow swiftly along, aided by Denis King's disturbingly authentic period-pastiche songs: I'm sure many patrons will leave thinking that they have heard "Could you please oblige us with a Bren Gen?" and "Hooray for Hollywood", the inspirations for the Noël Coward patter song and the show's opening number. Along with creating atmosphere, the music does its bit for perversion on all fronts: a touching duet about domestic bliss is performed by two men and, when the Eurasian girl (great poise and period style from Indira Varma) puts on a record to conjure up a bit of wholesome nostalgia, it's by Percy Grainger.

As Allam manages to conquer fond memories of Dennis Quilley, Malcolm Sinclair is a match for recollections of a deeply insane Nigel Hawthorne as the boss of the outfit, Major Flack. Sinclair plays him as a high-church vicar of soapy refinement and eerie remoteness, with a sugar-tong grasp of matey expressions, and a distaste for squandering justice and compassion on the other ranks.

James McAvoy, however, as the naive private, while cherubic and bright-eyed, lacks, in the first half of the play, the sweetness to contrast with his character's final, hypocritical self-exculpation. The young man's swift "maturity" – dropping "Power to the People" for "I'm all right, Jack" – neatly sums up the post-war betrayal of temporarily useful ideals.

Though the Chief of Defence Staff may say that the British Army can no longer be "all-singing, all- dancing", the Donmar Warehouse, fortunately, has more ambition. Long may these privates raise their weapons high.

To 2 March 2002 (020-7369 1732)

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