Clockwise from top: Privates on Parade, Ordinary Days and The End of History

Clockwise from top: Privates on Parade, Ordinary Days and The End of History

Three Off-West End musicals I’ve seen in the past few weeks – well, two musicals and a play with music – have served up slices of modern history to entertaining effect.

The end of The End of History is nigh – and I don’t mean North Korean nuclear threats, though perhaps Kim Jung-un will feature in a future spin-off. You only have until tomorrow night to catch the new musical of that name by the creative team of Blair on Broadway.

I’m a bit of a history geek and, indeed, have two books about 20th-century European history sitting on my bedside table as I type. So the very concept of this little tuner, written by Iain Hollingshead, himself a history teacher, appealed to me immensely. Hollingshead sets his action in a GCSE history classroom, where their pubescent struggles mirror – sometimes uncannily and with dollops of musical pastiches (score by Timothy Muller) – the geo-political machinations of nation-states between the First World War and the end of the Cold War.

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This is a serious way to make learning fun. I hope that a good spread of students and teachers have managed to get in to see it. And I hope that both this particular show and the concept have a future life. A Theatre in Education (TIE) tour? And then a series… in conjunction with Horrible Histories?

At the Union Theatre, Privates on Parade touches on some of the world events (Cold War, post-imperialism) covered in The End of History… and offers its own straw hats number. Peter Nichols based the piece, centring on a British army song and dance unit cheering the conscripts and combatting the communists in the jungle, on his own experiences as a veteran of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

Kirk Jameson‘s 40th-anniversary revival, designed by Mike Lees, fits so perfectly snugly into the intimate Union, where Simon Green – as the flamboyant cross-dressing Captain Terri Dennis – and his rag-tag band give it plenty of welly. This is the third production I’ve seen of Privates on Parade, and I can honestly say that, for all the appeal of the Donmar revival with Roger Allam and Michael Grandage‘s West End outing with Simon Russell Beale, this is my favourite.

The pivotal moment captured in Adam Gwon‘s New York-set musical Ordinary Days happened just nine months into the current century. I’m talking, of course, of 9/11. It’s never explicitly named but one of the four characters’ back stories, revealed near the end, and the arresting image of sheets of paper cascading down onto the street from a tall height leave us in no doubt.

This was the first time I’d seen Gwon’s cult hit, and I loved it, particularly in this award-winning Streetlights, People! production, now back for a third London run and boasting four strong performances from Natalie Day and Taite Elliot-Drew as a couple struggling to move their relationship to the next level, and the highly amusing Nora Perone and Neil Cameron as a neurotic grad student and her soon-to-be ‘gay best friend’. Jennifer Coles directs.

The End of History finishes at the Tristan Bates Theatre this Saturday 2 December 2017. 
Ordinary Days runs at Drayton Arms Theatre until Saturday 9 December 2017. 
Privates on Parade continues at the Union Theatre until Sunday 17 December 2017. 

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