Oh What a Lovely War!

Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
(2007)

Production photo

Director Mark Babych has revived the grandaddy of all devised productions Oh What A Lovely War, created by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1963 from songs and stories from the First World War.

The show was originally compiled from various reports and accounts of events in the war both from the politicians and war leaders and from the men in the trenches, punctuated by songs from the period and performed as a pierrot-style cabaret show.

Babych has assembled very good ensemble of no less than thirteen actor-musicians including some well-known TV stars like Matthew Kelly, Jeff Hordley and John McArdle, and Octagon regulars including Ruth Alexander Rubin and Simeon Truby.

The production, however, is rather uneven, and varies enormously from thoughtful and moving to jumbled and confusing. Littlewood was greatly influenced by some aspects of Brecht's technique, which Babych would have benefited from having taken note of here. The naturalistic moments, such as when the English and Germans exchange Christmas presents in the trenches and when soldiers and the nurse write letters home, come across very well and are very moving. However a lot of the time there is too much happening at once and it is all too rushed and difficult to follow. The all-important statistics of war losses on the screen are easy to miss as, except for when there are a few token freezes, there is too much else happening to distract attention away from them.

The whole cast work superbly as an ensemble, but some of the more distinct characters work better than others. Matthew Kelly has some great small comic characters, but his Haig isn't particularly strong and his comic face-pulling in the Christmas scene jars with everyone else's more straight characters in that particular moment. John McArdle doesn't really have a strong enough voice for the emcee or the sergeant major, and some of his jokes are lost in the general melee. Ruth Alexander Rubin once again shows off her strong singing voice and is excellent as the suffragette, and David Westbrook gives a beautifully subtle performance as Haig's second-in-command.

Richard Foxton's set gives the impression of an elaborate Edwardian theatre, while also looking quite like a ship with its balcony across the back. There are some very effective surround sound effects from sound designer Andy Smith, but there were some serious problems with microphones; whenever a microphone cue was late or a faulty mic went off in the middle of a song, the singer invariably sounded better with no amplification, calling into question whether it is necessary or even of any benefit to use microphones on trained singers in such a small venue (Ruth Alexander Rubin could, I am sure, fill a theatre twice the size without any electro-mechanical assistance).

There is still plenty to entertain and to remind us of the terrible events of this war, but the production doesn't really come together as a whole and so neither the serious message nor the humour and celebration of the piece are brought out as strongly or effectively as they should be.

Reviewer: David Chadderton