Oh What A Lovely War
Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Opera House, Manchester
Fifty years on from its original production, Joan Littlewood's own Theatre Royal Stratford East revived her greatest triumph, Oh What a Lovely War, from 1963 last year in a production that is now touring the UK.
This show was mentioned last year, along with Blackadder Goes Forth and The Monocled Mutineer, by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove as a "fictional prism" through which we now see the Great War, and that there are "Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths".
While it is clear that Littlewood and her company tended towards the politics as well as the methods of Brecht, the script contains far more facts to back up its case than does Gove's Daily Mail piece.
Terry Johnson's revival goes back to the pierrot costumes of the Theatre Workshop original, but certainly doesn't adhere slavishly to Littlewood's production—which wouldn't make sense, given its style. The cast welcomes in the audience and chats to them before taking to the stage to begin the show; the illusion of a makeshift cabaret is enhanced by some of the performers changing out of usher uniforms or arriving late.
And then we are into a cabaret show in a style that was seen in theatres all over Britain a century ago, with lots of familiar songs and comedy sketches. The difference is that it is carefully calculated to tell the story of the First World War from the point of view that it wasn't run terribly well and that any gains weren't worth the deaths of millions of men over four years.
The show certainly doesn't ridicule the men, but the commanders don't come out of it very well, caricatured as, as Gove rightly says, "an out-of-touch elite", although he's wrong to say that this is only the view of the left—one of the sources for the show is said to be late Tory MP Alan Clark's The Donkeys. Haig certainly comes off the worst, culminating in his statement, "in the end they will have five thousand men left and we will have ten thousand and we shall have won". As the MC states at the start, it's just a game, "the ever-popular War Game".
But what makes it most effective is the combination of popular songs and darkly humorous scenes with the statistics of losses scrolling across the back: "November... Somme battle ends... total loss 1,332,000 men... gain nil". Gove apart, the idea of criticising the establishment isn't as controversial as it was in 1963 and the show's angle on the war is the common one, but it can still be devastatingly effective.
Johnson's production keeps the spirit of the original, although it feels a little information-heavy in the first half, but to some extent the production is competing with the venue.
There are moments when the show needs to reach across the footlights, either for the comic's banter or with the emotion of an intimate shell hole scene, but the yawning hole of the Opera House's proscenium arch and the use of dull-sounding mics create a barrier that makes the communication very much one-way, and not always clear, especially when strong accents are used. Offstage shouts, such as in the famous Christmas Day 1914 scene from the neighbouring German trench, are barely audible.
This is an ensemble piece, but Ian Reddington acts as the MC and does so very effectively, otherwise it's difficult to pick anyone out from a cast that works together very well. There is also some lovely quirky choreography from Lynne Page.
Even fifty years on, there is still a powerful message in this show that can still provoke sadness, disbelief and anger. Whatever Gove chooses to believe, there is no incompatibility between honouring the bravery of those who died and challenging the reasons for them being sent to their deaths. Go, see it, and keep the memory alive.
Reviewer: David Chadderton