Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.

Oh What a Lovely War at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Next year marks one hundred and ten years since the start of World War 1 – the war to end all wars – as it was also known. Many, many people went into the Great War (another of its names) with their heads held high and firm belief that they were doing what was right and what was good. More importantly, they went in believing it would all be over by Christmas. They were wrong in virtually every one of their beliefs and the war turned into a nightmare that changed the world forever and, many believe, led to the rise of communism, fascism (and pretty much every other “ism”) along with the great tragedy of World War II – or the Replay as its sometimes called.

Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.
Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.

You may have noticed a touch of satirical commentary in my opening paragraph, and there’s a reason for that. Sixty years ago, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop launched the ultimate satire on the futility of the conflict with Oh What A Lovely War. A sixtieth birthday production of which has arrived at the Southwark Playhouse on the London leg of its UK tour.

In what feels distinctly like an end of the pier show in the early 1900s a band of entertainers (Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma, and Euan Wilson) welcomes the audience with some witty banter and good-natured chivvying along to get everyone seated. As the lights dim, the MC requests that we “take our places for the ever-popular War Game – complete with battles, songs and a few jokes.”

What follows is a history of the First World War that starts with the grandstanding of the various leaders of the main European countries and the “bullet that changed the world” – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914 – and goes on to the various alliances that meant by August the world was plunged into war, before finally ending in 1918 with the armistice.

Now, it may be thought that something as massive as the First World War could not be turned into a humorous and entertaining two-hour show but in 1963 Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshops did just that by highlighting not only the pointlessness of the war itself, but the absurdity of those in charge, but Oh What A Lovely War Is a show that really works on every level. Yes, it is anti-war and makes this obvious at every turn but, unlike many things hitting sixty this year, it has stood the test of time and still looks fresh and relevant. There is a segment where various profiteers come together talking about how much money they have made from the war. I am not sure why, but the image of people making obscene profits from an international emergency seemed to ring a few bells with me. As well as the dialogue – quite a lot of which was actually said by the character in real life – there are the songs, many of which will be familiar (at least the tunes) as they are hymns that the Tommys (British soldiers) added their own, often highly irreverent words to. To counter all the jollity of the singing and dancing, there are also the images and statistics projected onto Victoria Spearing’s set which show the reality of the war and its toll on the nation’s population as thousands of men die in pointless attempts to gain ground.

The story, which is told in a series of musical vignettes, manages to find a good balance between the comedy and tragedy of the war beautifully so that one is never too depressed, even as things seem to be going from bad to worse. In fact, you are often left with a feeling of anger at those in charge, particularly in the second act when Field Marshall Haigh – beautifully plaid by Euan Wilson – becomes CIGS and has total command of pursuing the war to its end. There is a wonderful moment when, as his troops are marching in full pack across ‘No Man’s Land’ towards the enemy – and certain death for the majority – the only thing bothering Haigh is that the King fell off his horse. As an example of where the upper classes had their priorities, it couldn’t be bettered.

And speaking of the cast, while I have singled out Wilson above, they are all absolutely fantastic. They act, they sing, and they play instruments, lots of instruments. In fact, between the six of them, they play more instruments than your average full orchestra pit. Every one of them portrays multiple characters from the upper to the working classes from virtually every European nation and America too and with very small changes in accent, posture and costume – a hat here, a jacket there – the audience is never in doubt as to who is speaking at any one time. A truly superb ensemble that works so well together you feel if any one of them forgot a line, the others would be able to leap in with an ad-lib or two and get them back on track without the audience noticing.

Nicky Allpress directs with charm, utilising every inch of the stage space and together with Movement Director Adam Haigh ensures that not a single moment or movement is wasted and everything and everyone is always in the right place at the right time. A quick mention of Naomi Gibbs’ wonderful costumes which when paired with the tent-like set ensures the whole performance really evokes the era of Pierrot shows just like the original production.

Oh What a Lovely War is a truly amazing show about a horrific time in history. It is clever, funny and highly emotional without ever slipping into the world of melodrama. At a time when the world is seeing major conflicts once more, and many are questioning the fitness to govern of those currently in charge, the production couldn’t be more timely or relevant to the world of today. Blackeyed Theatre is touring Oh What a Lovely War until April next year and you would be well advised to get a ticket when it drops into a theatre near you.

5 Stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Roll up, Roll up! And take your seat for the ever-popular ‘War Game’!

A cornerstone of modern musical theatre and one of the very greatest stage satires, Oh What A Lovely War is an extraordinary theatrical journey bringing to life the folly, farce and tragedy of the First World War.

Wildly satirical, visually stunning and deeply moving, it’s the musical that revolutionised modern theatre; an exhilarating, no-holds-barred assault on the military incompetence and inconceivable disregard for human life the First World War has come to represent.

Packed with timeless songs, razor-sharp satire and high jinks, Oh What A Lovely War is a hilarious, heart-breaking snapshot of life for those caught in the crossfire of conflict, a unanimous voice from the trenches and a timely warning from the theatre of war itself. Now, more than ever, it holds a mirror up to the world and speaks to us all.

21 NOV – 9 DEC 2023

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