Writers: Joan Littlewood, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles
Director: Terry Johnson
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
There can’t be many better ways to reinforce the horrors and futility of the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18 than to watch Joan Littlewood’s greatest triumph (itself 50 years old now). Littlewood had a profound effect on British Theatre from her Theatre Workshop base in Stratford East, arguably culminating in this revolutionary portrayal of the grim event and perhaps it is a shame, though no fault of company or theatre, that most of the audience at the ever welcoming Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford last night were born before Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and Littlewood staged the original production.
The musical/play portrays World War 1 as a Pierrot Show based on the ‘Great War Game’ and played against the musical background of the soldiers songs of the time. The crucial point is that these are not sung as Music Hall numbers (with the notable exception of I’ll make a man of any one of you, sung so famously by Barbara Windsor in the original and then in the film by the show-stopping Maggie Smith) but are performed very much as the men in the trenches might have sung them. Hanging on this musical framework are a number of sketches such as the Arms Dealers, Haig’s giving thanks in Church, the different treatment of Officers and Men, which point up the awfulness of the conflict. There is also a marked difference in tone between the two halves of the piece. The first is more triumphalist and the second more violent and depressing.
But there is also a good deal of black humour in the play and the pantomime format implies audience involvement. It is in this area that the current production rather falls down. The cast try hard enough and their singing and dancing is lively enough but the essential rapport between them and the audience never really develops. Wendi Peters as the musical hall singer gives a good account of herself, particularly in that Windsor/Smith classic while Christopher Villiers is convincingly obsessed as Sir Douglas Haigh, but the quick fire jokes and the involvement of the audience in the singing just slightly misses the mark. This may be because it is not quite the done thing to sing along or laugh at jokes about making money out of war or perhaps because the audience does not know enough of the words, but too often the atmosphere falls flat even when ‘Sister Suzy’s Sewing Shirts’ is displayed on the ticker tape board.
Overall Terry Johnson’s direction is slick with clever use of Lez Brotherston’s inventive (if alarmingly rickety) set. Mike Dixon’s orchestrations with Peter White’s musical direction of his competent band give a new twist to some of the numbers but significantly there is a problem of the rather shouty nature of some scenes and the inaudibility of others which makes the production unbalanced.
It is an enjoyable evening if only because of the quality and poignancy of Littlewood’s original, particularly today when looking back at the War is so topical. But this production is rather summed up by the way in which the last number They Didn’t Believe Me just peters out, but then perhaps that is the point of the whole thing.
Runs until 28th March|Photo Helen Maybanks