Book & Music: Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles, and members of the original cast
Director: Kevin Shaw
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
When Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop conceived what was to become their most lasting piece of theatre, the Second World War was still a vivid memory for most of the cast. Littlewood herself had lived through two, having been born not three months after the start of World War One. As a fiercely anti-war communist, Littlewood had been the subject of surveillance by MI5 in the early forties, but, not one to shy away from making her point, she delivered a blistering satire on the futility of armed conflict in Oh What A Lovely War which opened at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963.
Oh What a Lovely War can’t be messed with – there’s little room for directorial interpretation or clever tricks, and Kevin Shaw’s production doesn’t try. Instead he’s brought together a solid cast of actor-musicians and stuck to the rules. The Coliseum is transformed into an end of the pier show, a troupe of pierrots noisily explode onto the stage with music hall gags and bursts of music from the brass instruments.
Littlewood had long pondered a play about the war, and although she was interested in the songs associated with the conflict and thought they might form the basis of something, she found them sentimental and couldn’t see how they’d work with the subject matter. The music-hall solution is the master-stroke of Oh What A Lovely War, one which came about when Littlewood realised what she was trying to say with the production – “…after all, war is only for clowns” she wrote in her autobiography. It’s the balance of the drama and the slapstick that make or break the show, and although Shaw’s cast push the latter pretty far, the production is a master-class in light and shade.
The cast really are all-rounders with some great comedy turns, accomplished musicians and some great voices and it’s a truly ensemble piece that keeps everyone busy from beginning to end. They deliver a pacy show that barrels along, the energy of it spilling out into the auditorium with a bit of audience interaction (and the Coliseum’s audience are always game for some of that). The colour and circus of it all make the black and white images and stark statistics, projected on the screen at the back of the stage, all the more poignant. Lighting by Jason Taylor, including blindingly bright flashes from lights around the proscenium arch, adds much drama to it all.
Such a small space makes balancing voices against loud drums and brass instruments tricky, and at times it’s a strain to hear the cast. Whether the levels changed or it was just a case of tuning in is unclear, but things seemed to improve as the show progressed.
The Coliseum has a dedicated and enthusiastic audience and a visit always feels as though you’re in place with a strong sense of community. Oh What A Lovely War somehow feels right in this place, a generous sharing of theatre, music, and political comment that resonates as much now as it did in Stratford East over fifty years ago.
Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Joel Chester Fildes