Oh! What a Lovely War – Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh

Writer: Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop

Director: Sally Lyall

Reviewer: Gareth Davies

In the centenary month of the end of the First World War, Edinburgh’s Captivate Theatre present a welcome revival of this classic satire on the horrors of that conflict. First devised in the early 1960s by Joan Littlewood’s innovative Theatre Workshop, the play was a ground-breaking combination of comedy and drama, fusing documented facts about the war with a presentation style that emulated the knockabout end-of-the-pier song and dance entertainments of the early twentieth-century.

That style now seems a little dated – and unsatisfyingly reliant on jingoist stereotypes for its humour at times – but this predominantly youthful ensemble give a presentation that Littlewood and her crew would be proud of. Twelve local performers plus a pianist sing, dance and joke their way through four years of major European history, from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the grisly realities of trench warfare.

What is most striking about the play today is how far removed it is from the fetishisation of war (and military service) that pervades contemporary attitudes to remembrance. Littlewood’s text absolutely avoids denigrating the commitment and sacrifice of those who give their lives in service of their country, but neither does it suggest any glory or celebration of that cause. The overriding sense is of the waste and futility of all wars, and of the exploitation, manipulation and profiteering that is built into the machinery of conflict.

It is the contrast between horror and humour which make this piece so effective, and at times that comic potential is overlooked in Sally Lyall’s production, especially in the saggy second half where the heaviness is more acutely felt. But there is a slickness and a professionalism to the whole, and an energy that carries us from laughter to slaughter and back again.

The company is in fine voice, both as individuals and collectively, and the choreography shows how well the ensemble gels as a unit. The flexible staging works especially effectively, allowing for shifts in setting and perspective, and it is a credit to the company that they handle the quick change costumes and props with admirable skill.

From a bilious drill sergeant to the women sewing shirts for soldiers, and from historical figures like Edinburgh’s own Field Marshall Douglas Haig to the millions of young recruits who walked to their deaths from the front lines, the cast are adept at switching character and tone, and function so strongly as an ensemble that singling out any specific performance would do a disservice to the company as a whole.

The statistics and figures projected behind the action serve as a stark reminder of the true cost of the conflict – notably not just on the British side, but gives us German losses too – and the haunting and evocative archive images which accompany them ensure we don’t ever forget the cold reality of life (and death) during the war itself.

At this especially important time, a hundred years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’, Littlewood’s text remains a savage indictment of military conflict even as servicemen and women are still being pressed into action. The real sadness that emerges from Captivate’s production lies in reflecting on how so little has changed since Tommy and Gerry met in No Man’s Land all those years ago.

Runs until 11 November 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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