Oh What A Lovely War

Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast
Richmond Theatre

Oh What A Lovely War cast Credit: Alastair Muir

The war to end all wars, the war that everybody thought would be over by Christmas, lasted from October 1914 to March 1918 and, by the time it ended, ten million were dead, twenty-one million were wounded and seven million were missing.

The legendary musical entertainment based on the songs and statistics of the First World War was created by Theatre Workshop, Joan Littlewood, Charles Hilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast at Stratford East in 1963.

The self-styled “war game” offers “songs, battles and some jokes” within an end-of-pier, Pierrot Show framework. (The decision to present the documentary as a Pierrot Show came to Littlewood late in rehearsal.)

Oh What A Lovely War is a memorable piece of anti-war propaganda. Its enormous emotional impact has not lessened over the years.

The present revival, by Terry Johnson and cleverly choreographed by Lynne Page, was originally seen at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, last year. It is now at the start of a long tour of the UK.

Behind the actors, a news panel screen flashes familiar war posters and photographs of the men in the trenches. Most devastating are the constant reminders of the appalling statistics: “Battle of the Somme. British lose 65,000 men in the first three hours. Gain, Nil."

“Don’t worry,” says a nurse, comforting the wounded, “we’ll have you back in the front line within a week.”

The bitterest satire is reserved for the millionaire profiteers, the Church and Field Marshal Earl Haig, commander-in-chief, who is not squeamish about using the men as cannon fodder, confident that Britain will eventually win, because they have more men to lose than the Germans.

There are many memorable moments: the French cavalry’s pathetic charge against machine guns, recreated in mime, and the soldiers (lambs for slaughter) literally marching into battle baa-ing like sheep.

The bayonet drill-sergeant’s gibberish on the parade ground is one of the great music hall comedy routines. The most moving scene is the fraternisation between the British and German soldiers in No Man’s Land at Christmas.

There are over 40 songs, many of which you will know, including the heartbreaking (“Adieu la vie”), the recruiting number (“We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go”) and the lewd barrack-room ballads (“I don’t want to be a soldier”).

Oh What A Lovely War is very much a show which, at this moment in time, the whole family, from grandparents to grandchildren, should see.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch