Oh, What a Lovely War

Joan Littlewood
Blackeyed Theatre
Festival Theatre, Malvern

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Christopher Arkeston (from original cast), Euan Wilson, Tom Crabtree, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma and Harry Curley Credit: Clive Elkington
Euan Wilson leads bayonet practice Credit: Clive Elkington
In the trenches Credit: Clive Elkington
Sarajevo: Harry Curley, Tom Crabtree and Euan Wilson Credit: Clive Elkington

It’s all in the title, of course, Lovely and War, as this scaled-down touring revival of Joan Littlewood’s game-changing work from 1963 continues to flaunt patriotic, even jingoistic songs and rhetoric against the horrific statistics of First World War deaths projected in the background.

"Belgium put the kaibosh on the Kaiser"?—the corpses make a mountain; "Pack up your troubles"?—300,000 dead; "Good bye-ee, wipe a tear from your eye-ee"?—British Expeditionary Force wiped out; General Haig: "Every step is guided by Divine will"—1.5 million lost at Verdun.

Designer Victoria Spearing sets the piece on what looks like a makeshift stage near the front. Littlewood’s pierrot characters are replaced by other Commedia-like clowns, but the first-half burlesque, with exaggerated accents that make comprehension difficult, can be tedious, cheerful audience participation notwithstanding.

The shallowness of the knockabout comes to make sense, however, as the piece moves into darker territory after the interval, as do the songs: "Gassed last night", "When this lousy war is over", and "I don’t want to be a soldier". The farce is accentuated as Euan Wilson’s Haig orders men like sheep to the slaughter while wearing ridiculous socks, and bayonet instruction is delivered in babbling gibberish.

When Littlewood, who was twice fined for having actors improvise in the days when scripts had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, created the work, it was revolutionary in content as well as format. Among the sideswipes she worked in were these gems: 21,000 Americans became millionaires during the war; 800,000 Germans died of hunger as a result of the British blockade; average life expectancy of a machine gunner under attack was four minutes.

The soldiers provided their own black humour, evidenced in their songs, and the play has its own killing jokes, such as the sergeant unwilling to remove the leg of a dead German blocking a trench, as ordered by an officer, because it is holding up the roof, or the soldier expressing disappointment at a colleague’s withdrawal because he had drawn him in the sweepstake for the next death.

The six multi-talented cast members take on numerous roles in a show bounding with energy, thanks also to director Nicky Allpress and movement director Adam Haigh, and the musical numbers, directed by Ellie Verkerk, are skilfully arranged and slickly performed.

Leading the way is the excellent Harry Curley, a first-rate bassist who sings songs sentimental and satirical, while Chioma Uma demonstrates her skills on piano, violin and as a vocalist. Tom Crabtree shows off his expert musicianship on the trombone and trumpet, Wilson accentuates the absurdity of war and Alice E Mayer whips up proceedings with an all-round singing, dancing performance.

All six combine in a lovely a cappella version of "And when they ask us, we’re never going to tell them". Littlewood did tell them, but it nevertheless provides a poignant finale to the show.

The play's UK tour continues in Hull, Leeds, Darlington, Windsor, Derby, Mold, Wakefield, Wolverhampton, Basildon, Worthing, Hoddesdon and Dicot to 17 May.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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