Saturday 15 February 2014

Oh What A Lovely War

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London


Joan Littlewood's Musical Entertainment by Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton,
Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast

Directed by Terry Johnson

Ian Bartholomew

Fifty years after the outbreak of the First World War Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop commemorated the conflict with Oh What A Lovely War at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. Today, in the War’s centenary year, the same theatre re-stages the show. 

The musical opens frivolously, as an end of the pier Vaudeville extravaganza, with carnival lights, fancy drapes and a company of pierrots inviting the audience to join them in war games that condense the four year war into one evening. But by the interval the injuries and carnage are mounting and as the curtain rises on act two, the glamorous red drape that previously adorned the centre stage-back is now collapsed and crumpled, suggesting at turns the mud of the trenches or the blood of the fallen.

What makes Littlewood’s work all the more inspiring is that the musical numbers are all songs of the period, often composed with gallows wit by troops in the trenches. From the filthy irreverence of Christmas Day In The Cookhouse, through to the noble, heart-breaking dignity of And When They Ask Us, the poignancy of the songs lands like a whizz-bang. Hearing them a hundred years on, we know that they were once sung by men whose destiny was quite likely to be killed in battle. 

Terry Johnson’s visions are as beautiful as they are haunting. Trenches, ballrooms and Speakers’ Corner are all staged via simple scenery and classy acting. No stage-blood in this show, rather the horrifying mimes of bullets hitting men and gas being inhaled, as an electronic screen updates us with specific details of horrific casualty numbers. A cast of twelve play the many roles, with veterans Caroline Quentin, Shaun Prendergast, Ian Bartholomew and Michael Simkins sharing the most prominent characters. Quentin’s bosomy recruiting-showgirl turn, I’ll Make A Man Of You is a treat worthy of archiving, whilst the men’s interchangeability from pierrot, to soldier, to officer is seamless. Bartholomew’s General Haig is a clever caricature that avoids cliché.

There is something aesthetically pleasing about a show that honours the bravery of the humble foot soldier returning to its origins in E15 and to a theatre so rooted in London’s East End, the traditional heartland of the capital’s working man. That authenticity extends into the orchestra pit where Mike Dixon’s five piece band reject all digital instruments in pursuit of an entirely acoustic sound. Dixon plays a real piano rather than the eponymous keyboards, whilst Graham Justin’s brass playing sets a perfect tone.

In a moment of life imitating art, shortly before the show’s opening, Education Secretary Michael Gove slated it (together with the BBC comedy Blackadder's episodes set in WW1) for mocking history. As many of the First World War’s generals were buffoons, so too is Gove. The Great War with its two most notable technological advancements of the machine gun and poison gas gave rise to slaughter on an apocalyptic level. Most famously at the Somme and Ypres, Haig despatched nigh-on millions of British troops to certain death for what was to prove negligible strategic gain. Oh What A Lovely War does not mock war, far from it. Nations and armies deserve strong intelligent leadership, that for too much of the First World War, was lacking. Gove’s recent pronouncements only show his failure to have appreciated the show's message and remind us how easily history can repeat itself.

Alongside Picasso’s La Guernica and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Oh What A Lovely War is a work of art that brings the horrors of war into our collective conscience. Johnson and his company have honoured both The Glorious Dead and the vision of Joan Littlewood. Their show is moving, compelling and the finest history lesson in town.

Runs until 15th March 2014

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