The Theatre Royal Stratford East’s resolutely multi-cultural auditorium is strung to the rafters with British Empire bunting for the centenary of the First World War and by extension the 50-ish anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s landmark production of Oh What A Lovely War, on this same stage, which gave political satire a popular face.
It’s an affectionate, camply sentimental revival (directed by Terry Johnson which would explain it) and a good, if misguided, sing-a-long where a seaside pierrot company acts out all the scenes and gleefully stereotypes every flavour of Johnny Foreigner. Caroline Quentin as the Maggie-Smith-in-the-movie recruiting soubrette, and later the voice of the piece as an articulate pacifist, is much better than you might expect from her annoying ‘Sharps and YOU’ fitted bedroom commercials, and some of the younger men – especially Tom Lorcan and pressed-into-service understudy Marcus Ellard – are sweet.
But it needs more than a wallow in the foamy tub of nostalgia to bring the 51-year-old script to life. The scene-setting and the politics are complex, although school groups were surprisingly attentive given that they may only recently have learned that before Franz Ferdinand was a band he was the fall guy for the Hapsburgs whose assassination caused the whole shebang. Nevertheless it all takes time and the audience only really relaxes when it gets to the comfortingly-familiar-from-Blackadder but affectingly done Christmas Day in the trenches.
Beyond the interval, it’s mostly a numbers game as the anachronistic dot matrix scoreboard charts the casualties each time General Haig – pretty strong stuff from Ian Bartholomew – sticks to his blindly repetitive strategy of sending soldiers armed with Enfield rifles and bayonets into machine-gun fire. The play works on estimates which have later been increased by historians but still says ten million lost their lives and twenty million were injured, sometimes tens of thousands in a single day for the gain of no ground.
Although there’s a brief curtain speech about the continued futility of war and a great scene where American profiteers confess how they’ve manipulated newspapers, governments and popular opinion to keep the war going which is scarily relevant today, there’s also a lost opportunity to frame the piece in the context of modern military actions like Iraq, Vietnam and Bosnia to connect more closely with contemporary audiences.
But it is moving, and as you emerge blinking into the fluorescent light of the Stratford shopping centre – not Westfield but the edgier one south of the tube station – and see the skateboarders and inline skaters happily sharing the space with homegoing theatregoers, you may just recall the words of John Maxwell Edmonds who wrote the epitaph
“When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today”
and be grateful that a hundred years on we live in an imperfect, but still more tolerant world.
Oh What A Lovely War continues at Stratford until 14 March. Tickets £6-£28. Online booking is sold out for the entire run, but restricted view, day seats and returns are available: information via the production website or call the box office on 020 8534 0310. Londonist saw this production on a press ticket provided by the theatre PR team.