THEATRE REVIEW: Oh, What A Lovely War!, Theatre Royal Stratford East/UK Tour

Theatre Royal Stratford East

Mark Prendergast, Ian Reddington, Wendi Peters and Marcus Ellard in Oh, What A Lovely War! (photo: Helen Maybanks)
Mark Prendergast, Ian Reddington, Wendi Peters and Marcus Ellard in Oh, What A Lovely War! (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Oh, What A Lovely War! returns to the theatre where it was first premièred by Joan Littlewood in 1963, for this revival that coincides with the centenary commemorations of World War I. Famous for its criticisms of the war, and its Pierrot-style costumes and music hall ditties that contrast with the horrors they portray, the first performances garnered mixed reviews but the piece has since become a celebrated classic.

This production stays true to the original, with the familiar black and white costuming, and so-called “electric newspaper”, which persistently projects images and statistics across the back of the stage throughout the performance. It is this latter feature that helps the show’s ability to shock and move so profoundly. It is a sad fact that we are almost able to get used to the images of conflict that we see in documentaries, films, history books and annually on television each Remembrance Day; Oh, What A Lovely War! reminds us we should never become accustomed to this by giving us no rest from the incessant horrific facts of the war: “Average life of a machine gunner under attack on the Western Front: 4 minutes”, to cite just one of countless examples.

There is a possibility that this production could become dated, as the traditions that the show uses to make its point become more unfamiliar to modern audiences. Similarly, shock factor alone does not make an interesting theatrical event, so it’s a fine balance. By and large this production manages it, and as an audience we are both entertained and affected. The familiar wartime songs – ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag’, ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ – echo out with all their full poignancy, but there is also dry humour in numbers such as ‘Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser’ and ‘They Were Only Playing Leapfrog’. Cole Porter’s ‘And When They Ask Us’ (a parody rewrite of Jerome Kern’s ‘They Didn’t Believe Me‘) brings the production to an end on this note: “And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,/ The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,/ Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them/ There was a front, but damned if we knew where”. It’s humorous, but the full weight of knowledge about the true experiences of these men brings a whole another level of painful emotion to the scene, just as it does in the 1969 film adaptation.

Wendi Peters stars in this revival as a host of characters, demonstrating her impressive versatility; at times she has more energy than everybody else on stage combined, and you can’t not be impressed by her negotiation of tongue-twisters in ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts For Soldiers’. Ian Reddington also delights as our host for the evening, his audience interaction before the show drawing us in so we feel the impact of the piece all the more strongly. However, there are times when weak links in the performance threaten to dull this effect, for example some lacklustre execution of Lynne Page’s choreography, and some feeling of repetition in the more static scenes. It’s a shame that these moments prevented me from becoming totally immersed in the piece, as there are other scenes that are beautifully and heart-breakingly harrowing.

Oh, What A Lovely War! has perhaps not retained its unique freshness and bravado that it was credited in 1963. Elements of it now feel outdated, and some historians would point out that it is more a view of how negatively the war was seen in the 1950s and 60s than a fair historical analysis of the conflict itself. However, when you clear away all this extra scrutiny, it cannot be denied that the lasting impression is poignant and effective: it is an important production to preserve and perform, not just for its place in theatrical history, but for its power to make us reflect on what has been, and what should never be repeated.

Click here for dates and booking details for the Oh, What A Lovely War! UK tour.

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