Book, Music & Lyrics: Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast
Director: Nicky Allpress
It’s tempting to say that Blackeyed Theatre’s production of Oh, What A Lovely War! is timely, given the state we’re in, but that would suggest that there’s been a time in the past century when it hasn’t been disturbingly relevant and, sadly, that’s not the case. When Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop created this unlikely musical in 1963, they produced one of the greatest stage satires ever written, and one that remains just as harsh and biting today.
The show evokes a travelling theatre with a group of actors in Pierrot costume playing out the key moments of the First World War. Traditional songs of the period, lyrically bastardised by troops, are sung with clownish fake smiles. There are raucous musical numbers and heart-breaking lyrical solos, comic scenes with deliciously defiant national stereotypes and sharp comment on the ruling classes and profiteers. All with a projected backdrop of photos of men in the trenches and stark statistics chronicling the numbers killed and wounded.
Oh, What a Lovely War! Is such a theatrical milestone, and one so artfully crafted, that it needs no reinterpretation. While few of us will have experienced the original production, Blackeyed’s version seems respectfully faithful with its ramshackle set, rag-tag Commedia dell’arte costumes and small cast of actor-musicians. Blackeyed also strike the right tone between the horrific and the humour. As Littlewood said of the original production, the humour is in the “vulgarity of war” but it’s still a difficult balance to get it right. The cast are sublimely talented all-rounders but there are some great comic turns from Alice E Mayor (who gets to deliver the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers) and Harry Curley whose physical comedy skills are standout.
The cast are all instrumentalists and singers, doing a fine job of that actor-musician thing of seeming to be able to pick up and play any instrument to hand. Chioma Uma bashes out some fantastic piano tunes and delivers one of the few still moments in the show with a haunting rendition of Keep the Home Fires Burning. Harry Curley’s double bass line underpins moments of mirth and misery, and there’s brass, woodwind and lots of percussion, including a kazoo. And who doesn’t love a kazoo?
Nicky Allpress’s tight, pacy direction keeps the production on its toes at all times. Quick, seamless turnarounds from scene to scene, sharply choreographed set pieces, and economical use of props make for a visually engaging production on Victoria Spearing’s equally striking set. Costumes by Naomi Gibbs hold mostly true to the original but with a few more uniforms (Littlewood famously hated military dress and pretty much banned it from the original production) complete the look of it all perfectly.
This is a great production of a wonderfully crafted and timeless piece of theatre. It’s an extraordinary feat for a cast of just six, but their talent and versatility make this production much more than the sum of its parts.
Runs until 15 September 2023