There’s been plenty of excitement at Michael Grandage’s brand new venture – a fifteen-month season of five plays at the Noel Coward Theatre – following his hugely successful tenure at the Donmar Warehouse. The affordable tickets have grabbed headlines, but the first production, this high camp exploration of end-of-Empire military mores, has been enthusiastically received too.
The production suffered a tragedy earlier this year when actress Sophiya Haque died suddenly of cancer, but the cast have been playing a fitting tribute to her via their depiction of the joy, sadness and madness of life on the stage, treading boards that are, in this case, set in crumbling, sweltering late-1940s Malaya.
The opening assault of swearing, racism and homophobia jars, unavoidably. We could feel the 60-something woman behind us squirming uncomfortably in her seat. Combined with the introductory camp clichés, the inaugural minutes felt like we might be about to endure a dated period piece. Thankfully it doesn’t take very long for this production to ease into its comfortable – then flamboyantly triumphant – stride.
Stephen Russell Beale’s lead is pure pantomime dame, yet amongst all the doubles entendres and clown-like grimaces is fantastic, human warmth. The pain his character has endured easily slips from behind the mascara and flouncy outfits when it has to, making him hugely likeable rather than potentially grotesque.
Angus Wright’s Major Flack typifies the pomposity of the painfully stiff, blissfully ignorant, blindly privileged Englishman abroad, Peter Nicols’ 1977 script reflecting his own time in Malaya and the vague ridiculousness of why the British were even there.
As they focus on petty corruption, shagging desperate local prostitutes (or indeed each other) and putting on little plays, the resentment of the locals plays into the hands of the advancing Communists.
Counterbalancing the breathtaking, yet no doubt all-too accurate treatment of the servants, Grandage puts strong emphasis on the subsequent rise of a modern economic powerhouse in Singapore. As a historic update to the 70s original, it works well.
Christopher Oram’s design delivers the feeling of stupefying heat, from a clever monsoon sequence to this transformation of the dusty 40s into the shiny, thrusting modern day in a brief flash.
The production includes plenty of cheeky flashes of nudity too, to keep the tittering audiences well-titillated, but it ultimately it’s the warmth of the script, complete with clever song and dance sequences and the touching performances across the board that ensure the smiles.
Words: Tom Kihl