Captain Terri Dennis, the military drag queen in Peter Nichols’s “Privates on Parade”, is a debonair figure, at ease with his body whether sporting regimental blues or plunging into a sequinned sheath. As such he will mark a leap into the unknown for Simon Russell Beale, who plays him in the opening production of Michael Grandage’s new season at the Noel Coward Theatre.
The story of Beale’s career is that of a character actor turning into a heroic actor. Never has anyone achieved such success in roles for which he appeared spectacularly unsuited. “I hate my body,” he once declared; but the impression over the past 30 years is that it was his body that unlocked his creative energy. In early Royal Court and RSC performances he defiantly set out to make it look hateful, prompting critical comparisons to a “dung-beetle voyeur”, and “glittering porcine brat”. Then, amazingly, he began internalising the process so that the great Chekhov and Shakespearean roles became available; and entirely on Beale’s own terms—Ariel as mutinous menial who finally spits in his master’s face; Chekhov’s Konstantin as an icily untouchable outsider; a Falstaff who is terrified of silence. He can draw all parts towards him, and they turn out to be a version of himself.
Vocally, Beale is a musician and the most athletic verse-speaker since John Gielgud. Hear him as a singer or as a radio actor and the confessional element vanishes. The performance remains masterly, but the unearthly tenor and cold-steel speaking voice are an escape from the flesh; they do not transmit the intensities of longing, despair and bottomless anger that enable audiences to watch Beale on stage and see into themselves. There is no telling how he can accomplish this with Captain Terri, but you can be sure that the singing will be beautiful. ~ Irving Wardle
Privates on Parade Noel Coward, London, Dec 1st to Mar 2nd
THEATRE AT A GLANCE
Boris Godunov (Swan, Stratford, Nov 15th to Mar 30th). Michael Boyd bows out as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, after one of its most successful seasons ever, with this adaptation of Pushkin, the final project of the late Adrian Mitchell. Two exits, one entrance: Lloyd Hutchinson, one of Britain's classiest character actors, gets his first, well-deserved RSC lead.
Merrily We Roll Along (Menier Chocolate Factory, London, Nov 16th to Feb 23rd). And merrily the Menier rolls out what should be yet another of its hit musical revivals—Sondheim's sour tale of showbiz and the price of success. Maria Friedman makes her directorial debut, with another old Menier hand, Jenna Russell, bringing her clear-water voice to the part of Mary Flynn.
Julius Caesar (Donmar, London, Nov 29th to Feb 9th). In a first for the West End, Phyllida Lloyd directs an all-female version of Shakespeare's political showdown. The spiky, zippy Frances Barber is Caesar, with high-toned Harriet Walter—Britain's answer to Katharine Hepburn—as Brutus. Anything could happen on the way to the forum.
The Effect (Cottesloe, London, Nov 6th to Jan 23rd). A love story set in a pharmaceutical research lab, Lucy Prebble's first new play since "Enron" sees the reliably likeable Billie Piper making the leap from television to a National debut. She may well be outshone by the lambent talents of Anastasia Hille and Jonjo O'Neill.
The Anarchist (Golden, New York, from Nov 13th). Just when you thought David Mamet could only write men, he writes a play that's entirely about women. And set in a women's prison. Patti LuPone plays a female con going head to head with her parole officer—Debra Winger, who still has a smile like she swallowed the sun.
The House Where Winter Lives (Discover Children's Story Centre, London, Nov 29th to Jan 13th). Punchdrunk, the immersive theatre company responsible for "The Crash of the Elysium", creates an adventure for younger children, who will search for a magical key lost in an ice-locked forest. An imaginative alternative to panto for tinies—and their parents. ~ ISABEL LLOYD