Oh What a Lovely War

Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast
Theatre Royal Stratford East Production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Mark Prendergast, Ian Reddington, Wendi Peters and Marcus Ellard Credit: Helen Maybanks
Oh What a Lovely War Credit: Helen Maybanks

Two World War One shows in quick succession, both concentrating on the same period of the war yet viewing it from completely different perspectives.

Birdsong is very serious bringing the realism of that time horrifyingly to life. It grips the audience so strongly that we are living that time with them, with sets, occasional music and sound and light intensifying the terror, the carnage and also the bravery of men defending their home and country in unbelievably appalling conditions.

Oh What a Lovely War is seemingly in complete contrast. A light-hearted musical with so many jolly songs that you’d believe the soldiers all sang happily throughout without a care in the world—but the message underneath is much the same as Birdsong only with more emphasis on criticism of the men at the top and their disregard for the lives they were wasting with unrealistic strategy.

One episode, played out in both shows, is the order to march steadily and slowly forward towards the enemy lines which, unsurprisingly, resulted in a massacre. In this show they are watched by two incredulous Germans who comment “The British Tommy fights like a lion but is led by a donkey”.

The style of the Terry Johnson’s show reverts to Joan Littlewood’s original 1963 production. This is ‘The War Game’ performed by a Pierrot company in true Music Hall style with songs, jokes, dancing and humorous sketches. As they perform, the ever- scrolling ticker-tape behind them gives chilling information of the number of dead at each point, numbers so large they become incomprehensible and the gain… nil!

The now famous Christmas Truce has its place here too as the song "Stille Nacht" drifts eerily over to the British trench and soon the two ‘enemies’ are exchanging presents, before resuming the war. Such a pity this attitude didn’t spread to all the soldiers.

Tellingly, the war doesn’t stop the grouse shooting season, and ironically these businessmen from around the world are shooting for fun while discussing the war. “We’ll take care of you,” says the American, “you are our best customers,” and it is agreed that war is an economic necessity. They are all making vast amounts of money, some from arms dealing, and so far as they are concerned the longer it lasts the better.

This is very much an ensemble piece with the whole cast pulling together in such a joyous manner that it’s impossible not to warm to them. Songs are performed well and with a great deal of meaning, particularly those of the women cajoling the men to join up, with Wendi Peters a particular force in that direction, and Lynne Page’s choreography is creative and fun with music supplied by Peter White and his excellent musicians.

The show is la trifle longer than necessary, and the Pierrot style of Musical Hall entertainment takes a little getting used to, but Ian Reddington is a very effective compère keeping the show moving and involving the audience in the chat with affability as well as expertise, and the conclusion is “This is The War Game. It goes on forever and anyone can play”. Just so!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor