MusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

Oh What a Lovely War – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Ruth Jepson

Book, Music and Lyrics: Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop

Director: Nicky Allpress

There are few things in this world more terrifying than war and clowns, and if you happen to agree with this statement then, oddly, Blackeyed Theatre’s Oh What a Lovely War may be the perfect show for you.

A favourite of A Level History teachers and Youth Theatre directors alike, Oh What a Lovely War is a carnival of biting satire, absurd caricatures, and gut punching quietude which has been playing out the War Game of World War One for sixty years now. For this reimagining, a cast of six shabby Victorian Pierrot clowns perform a mix of sketches and jolly old musical hall songs, switching between accents, costumes and live instruments. The show illustrates the ineptitude of command via the stories of the men in the trenches and the women left back at home. One minute you are watching the political breakdown of England, France, Germany and Russia, the next you are being seduced into joining the army, and finally you are buffoonishly drilled in the bayonet before being shipped off to The Front, just in time for Christmas Eve, 1914… and that’s only Act One. Somehow through out it all, despite the colour, and the jaunty tunes, and the silly noises, you’re finding yourself radicalised into the realisation that maybe The Great War wasn’t so Great after all. Perhaps it’s the statistics flashing up behind the clowns, showing the millions of deaths sacrificed for mere yards of progress. Or perhaps it’s that being anti-war is not actually that radical an idea at all.

The show is a visual delight. The shabby circus set from Victoria Spearing and the simple yet eye-catching costumes by Naomi Gibbs transport the audience to a moment both outside of time and inexorably bound to the period (the Pierrot clown has never looked so attractive!). Director Nicky Allpress and Movement Director Adam Haigh have wonderfully orchestrated every tiny characterisation and the flow from skit to song to sketch is dynamic and precise. Ellie Verkerk’s musical direction feels both diegetic and full of showmanship. And that’s to say nothing of the six clowns themselves, who start the show manic and over the top and by the end transition to a calmer but still darkly comedic tone without the audience ever really realising. While it feels unfair to single out anyone for special attention, as the entire cast are a privilege to watch perform, Harry Curley is an comedy and clowning tour de force, and the fluid physicality of Alice E Mayer must be mentioned. The only issue in the performance is that projection within the cast can be lacking, and the songs in particularly do suffer from a lack of clear annunciation from the actors, especially when brass instruments are being played. The accents and the singing are sometimes a bit off or unsustained as well, but clowns could get away with that at least, as long as we can hear them.

Even with those mild problems, this revival is absolutely some must see theatre. Oh What a Lovely War is a bleak satire performed by colourful clowns. With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the many other wars the modern world has seen in the last few decades, its themes are as relevant today as they were when Joan Littlewood and The Theatre Workshop devised it back in 1963. And that may be the bleakest thing of all.

Runs until 27th March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Bleakly comedic

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. I saw this show last night and hated it. Much of the dialogue and lyrics were inaudible (the female cast members were the worst offenders), and the whole thing was so broadly played it came across as a pantomine. Nothing could have induced me to stay for the second half.

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