Oh What a Lovely War Still Hits Target 50 Years On

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 40 months ago
Oh What a Lovely War Still Hits Target 50 Years On ★★★★☆ 4

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Photo caption: The company in the 2015 production of Oh What a Lovely War. Photo by Alastair Muir.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

The satirical musical Oh What a Lovely War, premiered by Joan Littlewood’s radical Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963, is back with a bang at its original venue. This entertaining but ultimately poignant production, first staged there early last year to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, returns briefly with a predominantly new cast and live band before marching out on a national tour.

Cleverly alternating scripted scenes with soldiers’ songs from the Great War, this iconic devised work is a show within a show, as a group of ‘end-of-pier’ Edwardian pierrots enact a ‘war game’ demonstrating the absurdity and futility of this most senseless of conflicts. We are shown how imperial alliances lead nations into the horror of a new kind of trench warfare that led to a stalemate of over four years, a hugely costly war of attrition in which everyone was a loser.

The subversive satire is aimed at the political and military leadership that was responsible for the disaster, in particular the top brass of the British army, deluded that the next ‘big push’ will win the war, as their public posturings are contradicted by the background electronic display of brutal casualty statistics.

But the stoic humour of the ordinary Tommy is movingly evoked, especially through songs such as Pack Up Your Troubles and When This Lousy War Is Over (sung to the tune of the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus), as well as the ironic title song. And the famous Christmas Day truce in 1914, when enemy soldiers exchanged carols and presents, and played football in no man’s land, is re-created with affecting simplicity.

Terry Johnson’s busy direction superbly captures Littlewood’s music hall approach, with its ad libbing and interaction between a fine ensemble, multi-roling cast (led by Ian Reddington and Wendi Peters) and audience, gradually building up the emotional force of the show to devastating effect.

Lez Brotherston’s ingenious, mobile set features platforms attached to a second proscenium arch and a theatrical curtain (which fall apart after the interval) to complement the meta-theatrical nature of the work, while the auditorium is draped with Union Jacks and images of Britannia. And Ian William Galloway’s video projections include still and moving pictures of the appalling conditions on the Western Front.

That may have been a hundred years ago but, as is pointed out at the end, the ‘war game’ continues to be played in deadly earnest all over the world.

By Neil Dowden

Oh What a Lovely War is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 7 February, before going on tour with a visit to Richmond Theatre on 10-14 February. Tickets are £16–£34.50. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 05 February 2015