Actor Sophiya Haque passed away in January 2013, during the play's run. RIP.
Like 'Apocalypse Now' given the Kenneth Williams remix or 'Cabaret' retold by Noël Coward, Peter Nichols's determinedly camp 1977 war satire is an absurd and slightly flimsy beast, teetering precariously between being deceptively lightweight and genuinely so. It is also incredibly good fun, and a canny choice for former Donmar Warehouse boss Michael Grandage to begin his five play, 18-month stand in the West End with, an assurance that the heavyweight director is, above all, here to entertain.
As are the protagonists of Nichols's innuendo-laden comedy, which follows the misadventures of a fictional song and dance unit of the British army in post-war Singapore. At the head of them is the queenly acting captain Terri Dennis, played with almost mystical flamboyancy by Simon Russell Beale.
Like an even gayer version of 'Cabaret's Emcee, Terri seems to almost exist apart from the play's events, materialising every now and again – generally in drag – to either comment on the action or sing some ribald number for the lads. It is an extremely funny performance from Beale, a great actor let off his leash. Yet it is also meticulously detailed, with every flutter of eyes, pucker of the lips and pregnant pause just so. And it's not without pathos: Terri is an anachronistic symbol of colonial frippery, one who finds his mirror in Angus Wright's hilariously paranoid old soldier Major Giles Flack.
Caught in the middle of all this are the motley 'regular' soldiers of the troop, headed by naïve recruit Private Flowers (Joseph Timms), a wholesome Swindon lad who blunders cheerily into the webs of scheming, racist Sergeant Major Drummond (Mark Lewis Jones) and the arms of Drummond's kooky mistress Sylvia (Sophiya Haque).
Nichols is never less than scathing as he casts his eye over this ineffectual corner of a dwindling empire, and if the general tone is jollity-with-a-slight sting, Grandage's direction injects a sense of wired mania and imminent collapse, abetted by Christopher Oram's ominous ruined theatre set. And some of the songs – lyrics by Nichols – are priceless: in particular 'Could You Please Inform Us?' is a depressingly pertinent send up of Little Englander jingoism.
Nonetheless, if the British aren't entirely over their empire, their empire is now very much over, and in 2012 the aggressive camp in Nichols's humour feels more daring than the blunt satire. But that's fine: it's a wonderfully funny show, it's panto season, and here's Simon Russell Beale in a dress – what more could a red-blooded Englishman want?