Writer: Joan Littlewood
Director: Terry Johnson
Reviewer: Nicole Evans
The year is 1914.
Ten million fathers, husbands and sons are destined to never see their troubles or their old kit bags again.
A further seven million civilians are destined to lose their lives in the name of resolving a conflict.
The ‘war to end all wars’ begins.
Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War hit the stage and shocked its first audiences in 1963. Evolving from a BBC collection of First World War soldier’s songs, it transports us from a Pierrot show to the trenches on the front line and aims to represent both a harsh reality and some unforgiving trivialisations of the inaptly named Great War.
The scene is set by little more than two metal framed staircases, a red velvet curtain and a projector screen – the screen being the most prominent feature throughout – the conditions of most of which deteriorate before our eyes as the play goes on and the detrimental effects of the war start to show.
The nature of the differing rôles of each and every performer makes it difficult to pinpoint even a single star of the show; however, the company in general make a superb team and well represent each and every aspect of the weird and wonderful faces of the conflict and its associated characters.
Wendi Peters impresses with her powerful voice alone and Ian Reddington oozes charisma and manages to charm and absorb his audience throughout.
Act one seems to go a little too far in its trivialisation attempts and jumps around to the point where the plot becomes slow and hard to follow at times. Although the audience participation is welcome, and the Pierrot show aspect is a lot of fun, it has a tendency to slip into panto realms and leaves us wondering if the seriousness will have a chance to push through. The facts and figures already begin to display on the suspending electronic newspaper but are often missed at this point as the on-stage antics provide too much of a distraction.
Act two not only brings the more serious side of the play to the front of our minds but also carries a far more polished and professional edge. The horrifying facts and figures on display are now not only much better timed between the action, but, alongside the inclusion of authentic photograph projections, succeed in taking our breath away as the harsh, somewhat pointless, reality of the war sinks in.
Alongside the obvious tales of disillusioned soldiers is a portrayal of a side to the war that is often glossed over – the side of the women left behind to fend for themselves and support their country’s troops from afar. The female tale told in the play subtly outlines the stark and sometimes heartless contrast between the sorrow surrounding lives lost, and the subsequent opportunities for independence and employment gained, and at times it’s clear Littlewood wished to portray the soldiers as the more compassionate of the two.
An emotive blend of sombre and silly, Oh What a Lovely War tugs at even the toughest of heartstrings while making you feel horribly guilty for enjoying the show. Not all will agree with the perception portrayed, but the thought process that is sure to follow won’t fail to fascinate.
An interesting take on a valued piece of history. Worth enlisting for.
Photo: Helen Maybanks | Runs until April 4th