Oh, What a Lovely War!
Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton
When the executive team at Derby Playhouse were discussing their spring-summer season, a second Gulf war was at that stage only a possibility. Had Messrs Bush and Blair seen this 40th anniversary production of Joan Littlewood's musical entertainment they would probably still have declared war on Iraq - but would have been given a timely reminder about how war games don't always go to plan.
Oh, What A Lovely War! marks the first co-production between the Playhouse and Derby Playhouse Community Theatre. One of the first things the new management at the theatre did was to axe the annual, week-long community play. This year a total of 40 community performers - there are two separate casts who share out the week - will be working alongside nine professionals for a full five weeks.
Oh, What A Lovely War! is not revived very often, presumably because of the huge numbers of people involved. But Stephen Edwards and Tim Arthur's offering is a powerful piece of drama which loses hardly anything by having non-professionals on the stage.
So many productions these days resort to video to encounter difficult staging moments. But Kit Lane and David Phillips use video in almost a matter-of-fact way to illustrate the stark reality of war: bodies lying forlornly on muddy fields; the death toll in each of the battles; and the fact that the huge loss of lives resulted in a negligible gain of enemy territory.
"We must grind them down," said one of the British commanders as the conflict developed into a war of attrition. "Our population is greater than theirs."
World War I was responsible for the deaths of ten million people, the equivalent of a Twin Towers disaster every day for four years. On one level the production leaves you in no doubt as to why it was known as the war to end all wars. At almost the same time you get a sense of the near-blind patriotism and hope which is exemplified in songs such as Goodbye-ee, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep The Home Fires Burning.
As for individual performances, all the professionals are virtually faultless, although special mention must be made of Adam Stafford, the sergeant major who tries valiantly to drill some discipline into his clumsy troops in what is the funniest scene of the evening.
The non-professionals give a superb account of themselves. In the main their talents have been brought out to enhance the production. The acting of the soldiers in the trenches is particularly commendable. Only occasionally do a couple of them look slightly awkward in their movements across the stage.
The singing is accomplished, the dancing even more so, and there are telling touches which add enormously to the production, such as the poppies which cascade from the ceiling in memory of those who lost their lives.
Joan Littlewood died last year on the day she was to decide whether Derby Playhouse could perform her creation. No doubt she would have been impressed with the pathos, power and presence of this compelling presentation.
"Oh, What A Lovely War!" runs until July 5th
Reviewer: Steve Orme