Oh What A Lovely War

Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast

Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Oldham Coliseum Theatre

From 08 September 2017 to 30 September 2017

Review by David Chadderton

Slightly missing all of the major anniversaries, the Coliseum has revived Joan Littlewood's savage satire for the centenary of the penultimate year of the First World War.

When Littlewood first staged this show in Stratford East in 1963, a lot of survivors of both World Wars were still alive, patriotism and unquestioning obedience to authority was considered the norm—although this was rapidly changing—and the Lord Chamberlain would ban from performance any play that portrayed a living politician on stage, or anything else he didn't think was good for the public to see.

Half a century later, when suspicion of our politicians and condemnation of the leaders of that war is the prevalent view rather than that of radicals and Communists, Oh What A Lovely War is still able to rile the establishment, as Michael Gove's piece for the Daily Mail in 2014 shows, when he named this show, together with Alan Bleasdale's The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder Goes Forth, as pedlars of "left wing myths" about World War I.

Heavily influenced by Brecht's political theatre, Littlewood staged "The War Game" as a variety show, with a cast dressed as pierrot clowns performing songs of the period and sketches that lampooned the people running the war, all performed with bitter irony and well-researched satire. Behind this, photographic images of the horrors of the trenches are mixed with a newspanel bringing news of losses: and what their lives had bought: "November... Somme battle ends... total loss 1,332,000 men... gain nil."

Kevin Shaw's production is more panto than pierrot, with plenty of knockabout comedy, some of it ill-judged and missing the comic timing, and half-hearted attempts to involve the audience. There's little variety in pace and tone throughout, so the stark contrasts between the silliness of the sketches and the shocking reality of life in the trenches and the human cost of the war don't come across.

The slides and the newspanel captions occupy the same screen in Foxton's set, the latter designed like silent movie caption cards, but the screen is often obscured by performers and the show never stops for us to take in the enormity of what the screen is telling us—"By November 1916, two and a half million men killed on Western Front"—so they are easily missed.

The moment when the seriousness does start to come through is when Field Marshall Haig appears in the second act, in a beautifully subtle performance by Jeffrey Harmer, contrasting with all of the grotesques surrounding him. This is exactly right, as the grotesquery is in what he says rather than how he behaves: "in the end they will have five thousand men left and we will have ten thousand and we shall have won." It's all a numbers game.

Where this actor-musician production shines is on the musical side, with some beautiful singing ranging from haunting solos to full-cast chorus in harmony (spoiled only slightly by a very dull vocal sound in the PA) and great musicianship on multiple instruments. Musical director Howard Gray has done a terrific job with this musically talented cast.

On the acting side, the performances vary: Richard J Fletcher is in full panto mode most of the time, which works in some parts better than in others; Lauryn Redding is a very strong presence in many of the female-led numbers; Anthony Hunt is great in many of his parts but looks uncomfortable as the MC at the start, a part which really requires a good stand-up comic; Matt Connor and Reece Richardson stand out in several roles. In fact the Coliseum should be commended for investing in a production that puts ten performers on stage without a co-producer to share the bill.

Fifty-four years on from its controversial debut, it is too easy to make this show come across as a nostalgic singalong show with a few serious moments but nothing to challenge what we already know and think. In a production that muddies both the entertainment and the political message, both are weakened to leave something that impresses intermittently but doesn't really have much to say to us.