Oh What a Lovely War – Soutwark Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Serafina Cusack

Writer: Joan Littlewood

Director: Nicky Allpress

Restaged for its 60th anniversary, Blackeyed Theatre’s Oh What a Lovely War delivers its message that “war is a thoughtless loss of life” through satirical songs from the trenches. It’s a message that’s been mainstream thinking for a long time, and no longer feels vibrant or urgent. Nevertheless, crisp production, energetic performances, and vibrant musicianship all-round make this old musical feel surprisingly alive.

The ensemble cast, all dressed as pantomime clowns, guide us through the ‘war games’ from rising tensions and the breakout of fighting, through the never-ending suffering on the Western Front. As they do this, they slide smoothly between the roles of generals and profiteering business owners and the foot soldiers who suffered at their hands. The cast do so with large moments of satirical lightness and sauciness, while making time for sombre moments. Cheeky songs and tragic vignettes bump up against each other, mirroring the range of tragicomic songs themselves.

Harry Curley showcases this range as he gives an extraordinary level of energetic commitment to each role, whether it’s a high-class preacher or an imposing drill sergeant. That’s not to say that the energy levels from any other cast member are low, far from it. Each and every member of the cast give their all to the vast numbers of characters they play. Chioma Uma in particular brings a true sorrow to one of the most heart-breaking songs in the play, and to Alice E Mayer and Euan Wilson deliver engaging crowd work prior to the play’s start and during its interval.

The cast are aided in this by crisp movement direction from Adam Haigh and inch perfect direction from Nicky Allpress who ensures that the piece is always in forward march. The set by Victoria Spearing brings a touch of circus whimsy. This is pitched against haunting lighting by Allan Valentine, including tragic ticker-tape projections of the human cost of the war.

The script itself loses momentum as it starts to repeat its beats, reflecting the drudgery of trench warfare, and so the second act begins to lose its sense of purpose. There’s a meek attempt to make the piece feel relevant to modern day, and some lines, songs, and stereotyped characters have aged poorly. The production gives a lot of respect to a script in its 60th year, but sadly this means it has little to say to an audience who are well aware of cost of war. Nevertheless, the boundless energy of the performances and expert musicianship distract from this to provide a sweet but toothless satire.

Runs until 9th December

The Reviews Hub Score:

Whimsical wartime throwback

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