REVIEW: Oh What A Lovely War!, Richmond Theatre (Touring) ✭✭✭✭

Wendi Peters stars in the Uk tour of Oh What A Lovely War

Wendi Peters and the cast of Oh What A Lovely War. Photo: Alastair Muir

Oh, What A Lovely War
Richmond Theatre, as part of UK tour
12 February 2015
4 Stars

It's grouse season. Somewhere lush, privileged and privately owned in Scotland at some point during the middle of the First World War. A group of businessmen from around the world have gathered for a jolly. A German, a Frenchman, an American, a Swiss and the English host. The Scottish gamekeeper is on hand to ensure whims are satisfied. They are all arms dealers or bankers. People who made money, lots of money, from the continuing war.

They boast about the merchandise they are shipping around the world, slipping behind or past enemy lines. They talk in awe about the new weapons, the acid-laced grenades, the poison gases they are developing and selling. They laugh about the money they are making and will continue to make and express outrage at the talk of Peace – they want the war to run and run, like a West End musical. The Swiss banker keeps asserting his neutrality. The Scottish man ensures the grouse is released for their shooting pleasure, but is not afraid to remind his master that his six sons are at the Front. But to the shooters, his sons, like all soldiers on all sides, are just the same as the grouse: fodder to be shot for their personal gain.

It's a powerful, disquieting scene; brutal because of its honesty and matter-of-fact playing. It's one of several powerful and remarkably performed sequences in Terry Johnson's revival of Oh What A Lovely War, originally produced by the Theatre Royal Stratford East in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that company's original production of the piece.

Oh What A Lovely War is a collaborative piece of musical entertainment; it was created by Joan Littlewood's ground-breaking Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original company. In its day, it must have been confrontational and astonishing. Its trail-blazing qualities have faded over time, and the fresh ground it broke 50 years ago has been raked over consistently, the subject of innumerable artistic works which question the sense, rationale and consequences of war. Black Adder Goes Forth is but one example.

Nevertheless, the work still has great relevance and, in at least one respect, has more power now than it ever has had. It is a combination of sketches, jokes, music hall songs, dramatic scenes and wartime songs which results in a conflagration of poignant truths and misty nostalgia. Tied up with the nostalgia, with a kind of hard-wired internal approval for the audience, are notions of Empire, national pride and selfless self-sacrifice. Time has made them inextricably linked.

This singular occurrence results in hard questions for the audience: Would you sign up voluntarily to fight a war? Are you a Pacifist? What do you think about Conscription? If a new Conscription Act was passed would anyone conform to it? What qualifications do officers in the Armed Forces now have? Do modern leaders regard foot soldiers as just so many lemmings? Is death on a war front any more or less tragic than death for refusing to bear arms against another human being, whatever the cause? Does modern society care about “England” and would it be something worth fighting for? Will there ever be a “war to end all wars”? Do people still profit from arms manufacturing?

These issues become more and more palpable as the performance proceeds. As familiar song after familiar song is beguilingly presented, as the audience becomes tuned into singing along, clapping along, tapping along – signing up in other words – the dawning sense of irritating discomfort spreads like measles. It seems like jolly good fun, but it has a deeply troubling, yet undeniably apt, underbelly of raw, visceral horror.

Johnson's production revels in its message. Les Brotherson's clever multi-media set design aids immeasurably. Real life images can be projected or played onto a screen, juxtaposing grim reality against the Pierrot troupe of performers and their antics. Across the top of the back of the stage area, a large, wonky, electronic ticker-tape spells out devastating facts and figures about the loss of life and the number of wounded – very sobering information. Contextualised by these real life images and facts, the antics of the performing troupe represent war propaganda at its most effective: a gloss of bravery, national pride and jocularity of spirit covering the unadorned devastating reality.

War itself, and the politicians and merchants who profit from it, either personally or professionally, especially at the cost of real lives, are the true villains here. Rightly. The production is at pains to ensure that the humans involved in the battle are not portrayed as baddies. There is a clever scene where two British women are discussing developments in the war and moments later two German women are seen discussing the same issues. Same war, different sides, same problems.

This even-handedness about the personal cost in War is underlined is several of the most potent moments in the production. A remarkable scene depicts French soldiers who try to refuse to obey a command because they will be no more than sheep going to slaughter if they do. Their defiant “baas” are both comical and undeniably tragic.

Another scene shows a group of Irish soldiers who, finding themselves in the wrong place, receives orders to return from whence they came – but they know to do so will be certain death. Faced with the fear of death by court martial for disobeying a stupid order or possible death by a sniper, they have an impossible choice to make. It’s sobering and potent material.

The piece also deals with that first Christmas at the Front, when the British troops first heard Silent Night, sung across the trenches, and a truce was declared for a day or so, where no shots were fired and men from opposing sides exchanged gifts and greetings with their opponents. The treatment of that evocative moment in history is careful and almost magical – in the midst of deadly warfare, man’s humanity to man. In one short, beautiful scene, this production achieves what the RSC’s recent 2 hour plus version (The Christmas Truce) could not.

But it is not all heavy going. There are a lot of laughs along the way and some genuinely delightful renditions of songs and dances. Lynne Page’s choreography is brisk and joyful and the cast execute it cleanly and with delight. The musical aspects of the production are in very safe hands – Mike Dixon and Peter White – and the accompaniment is jolly and appropriate.

The excellent cast do justice to the material and can turn on a dime from moments of harsh solemnity to opportunities for lighter fare. Everyone can do what is required of them, and more than adequately. It’s a tip-top company doing first rate work.

There are, inevitably, some standouts : Marcus Ellard, Wendi Peters, Matthew Malthouse, Christopher Villiers, Emma Crossley, Richard Glaves and Mark Prendergast; all shine in different moments for different reasons.

Some of the entreaties to the audience to participate, a la Music Hall of days gone by with auditorium lights up, seem forced, don’t work really, and take the shine off, slightly, the polished work in the rehearsed scenes. The pre-show “warm up” routine is entirely counter-productive. While this is annoying, it does not seriously undermine the enjoyment and point of the production.

Oh What A Lovely War is still a remarkable piece of theatre. Surprisingly, age and changes in the world have not robbed it of relevance or sting. A great cast and a fine production make it a very worthwhile time in the theatre, full of fun and reflection.

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR 2015 TOUR DATES

Richmond Theatre
10 – 14 February 2015
The Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1QJ
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Malvern Theatres
16 – 21 February 2015
Grange Rd, Malvern, Worcestershire WR14 3HB
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Opera House Manchester
24 – 28 February 2015
3 Quay St, Manchester, Lancashire M3 3HP
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Cambridge Arts Theatre
2 – 7 March 2015
6 St Edward’s Passage, Cambridge CB2 3PJ
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Theatre Royal, Bath
9 – 14 March 2015
Saw Close, Bath BA1 1ET
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Princess Theatre, Torquay
17 – 21 March 2015
Torbay Rd, Torquay, Devon TQ2 5EZ
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Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
23 – 28 March 2015
Millbrook, Guildford, Surrey GU1 3UX
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Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
30 March – 4 April 2015
Belgrade Square, Coventry, CV1 1GS
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Theatre Royal, Brighton
7 – 11 April 2015
New Rd, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 1SD
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Leicester Curve
13 – 18 April 2015
60 Rutland St, Leicester LE1 1SB
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Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
28 April – 2 May 2015
Exchange Street, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP20 1UG
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Birmingham Rep Theatre
5 – 9 May 2015
Broad St, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 2EP
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Hall For Cornwall,Truro
11 – 16 May 2015
Back Quay, Truro, Cornwall TR1 2LL
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Hull New Theatre
19 – 23 May 2015
Kingston Square, Hull HU1 3HF
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New Wimbledon Theatre, London
26 -30 May 2015
93 The Broadway, London SW19 1QG
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