Book: Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Director: Terry Johnson
Reviewer: Pete Benson
In the early 60s Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop Company in an ensemble collaboration between writer, director and actors created Oh What A Lovely War:a series of sketches punctuated by songs that tell the narrative of the First World War. It has stood the test of time, perhaps because of the use of songs of the day that serve to tell of the ordinary man’s experience in one of the most horrific of modern day conflicts.
The conceit of the production is that a troupe of pierrots is staging this show. They add necessary symbolic props and costume to their black and white clown outfits to portray multiple characters both real and fictional. As we enter the theatre the pierrots joke and banter with us and before we know it the show is under way with”Row, Row, Row”, a light hearted song of a pleasant Sunday afternoon romance on the river.
Things turn dark very quickly as we enter ‘The War Games’. Political machinations lead to the shooting of the Arch Duke Ferdinand and soon the stage is filled with shell flashes and roaring explosions.
Many of the vignettes telling the story of the war are light hearted and humorous but if they don’t have a menacing under tone then the accompanying news panel spews out such statistic as, ‘November… Somme battle ends… Total loss 1,332,000 men… gain nil’.
One of the best scenes in the show is the Christmas day truce. It is staged in the British trenches evocatively lit by designer Paul Pyant. The Tommies trade a bawdy cookhouse song for the German’s beautiful Heilige Nacht. Through clever staging, when, out of the darkness a frightened German approaches the English with his hands raised, the tension is ratcheted up to breaking point. The staging is consistently clever around the simple but effective set with its mobile centre piece of shell damaged, sculptured wrought iron.
In the second half of the show we see much of General Hague portrayed as blinkered, callous and immune to the suffering of his men. On his knees he prays for victory, ‘before the Americans arrive’.
Wendi Peters gives a lovely fiery performance as Emily Pankhurst as she is verbally abused during an impassioned appeal for her pacifist cause.
The final song of the show is a Cole Porter parody of the Beautiful Jerome Kern song “They Didn’t Believe Me”. It is the Tommy’s salving lie summing up the reluctance of many survivors to speak of the horrors they endured. As the cast sing they respectfully acknowledge the unknown soldiers in the huge black and white photograph projected centre stage.
The show is given many clever, moving and imaginative moments by award winning playwright director Terry Johnson. Topically there is even a Nazi salute given to a brief image of Nigel Farage which in no way feels out of step with the proceedings.
This is a good ensemble cast who play well together and move in and out of their characters with seeming ease and conviction. They sing the songs in fine voice. The show mostly cracks along at a good pace without being afraid to offer us moments of reflection. The second half is perhaps a tad too long occasionally maintaining the same tone and repeatedly making the same point but this is minor carping. This is an historically important but fun show that never at any point either disrespects the men who fought nor belittles the tragedy of the awful conflict.
Runs until May 16th 2015