Theatre Review: Oh What A Lovely War - Theatre Royal, Bath
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop broke the mould in 1963 when they unveiled their satirical musical about the devastation and futility of the First World War. Now this Theatre Royal Stratford East production has been revived under the direction of Terry Johnson to commemorate the centenary of the war which was supposed to end all wars.
Originally devised by its cast, the play uses a combination of costumed Pierrots and ridiculous monarchs to highlight the catastrophic events which led Europe into conflict in 1914. Interspersed with rousing song and dance routines, there is an atmosphere of music hall theatricality, of this all being a war game, except for the sobering images projected at the back of the stage and the illuminated news-feed scrolling its width, announcing events and, later on, the terrifying toll of casualties.
This revival is largely faithful to the original, albeit with a more elaborate set designed by Lez Brotherston. Odd touches bring it up to date – a projection of Nigel Farage here, a reference to Ewan McGregor there. If the play is not so shocking to us today as it was in the early sixties, so knowing are we now about the arrogant stupidity of its remote generals and the monumental waste of a generation of men, there are still moments which make you catch your breath. Early on, French cavalry are machine-gunned down in a German ambush and the letters home read aloud by an officer from either side are touching in their similarly descriptive recoil of horror.
Yet the most poignant moments always belong to the ordinary foot-soldiers. As a counterpoint to the rousing patriotism of songs such as Are We Downhearted? and the recruitment drive of I’ll Make a Man of You, the wounded men arriving back at Waterloo, to find that ambulances are for officers only, foreshadow their expendability in later battles. And Terry Johnson’s direction captures all the pathos of the British and German soldiers singing carols to each other – the German’s sublime rendering of Stille Nacht, the bawdy British retort of Christmas Day in the Cookhouse – and playing football on Christmas Day 1914.
The ensemble cast works well together with some beautifully pure singing voices amongst them. Particularly notable is Wendi Peters – a splendid doyenne of the music hall making light work of the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts and a rousing Mrs Pankhurst, battling against the hostility of the crowd with her message of pacifism. Ian Reddington also excels as the Pierrot MC adopting multiple roles, with an amusing turn as the infamous sergeant-major barking unintelligible commands during bayonet practice.
Some of the scenes are less fluid. Immediately after the interval, the August 12th grouse shooting seems under-powered and the dip in pace which is carried over makes the production overall feel too lengthy. But Field Marshal Haig’s indifference to the sacrifice of five to fifty thousand lives a day at Passchendaele is nonetheless chilling, as even his General observes; ‘this is not war, sir, it is slaughter.’ It is a timely reminder to a new generation that the war games are not over, we are still living through them today.