Last Updated on 23rd September 2023
Paul T Davies reviews Blackeyed Theatre’s production of Oh What A Lovely War at the Mercury Theatre Colchester as part of a national tour.
Oh What A Lovely War.
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Blackeyed Theatre Website
Marking the 60th anniversary of the classic show created by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Blackeyed Theatre are touring this new production. At the time, it revolutionised musical theatre, telling the history of World War One using songs popular from the period, some official, some with lyrics changed by the soldiers. It still stands as a powerful anti-war message, and shockingly still relevant. There is much to admire, although some of the material is a little long, for example, whilst a scene demonstrating how many millionaires were created during the war is pertinent, it drags on long after the point has been made. It’s also a little frenetic in places, the first half in particular takes a while to settle down, and there’s no “everyman” character that we can follow and empathise with. However, it is deeply moving in places, and projections remind us of the horrifying, almost unbelievable loss of life, the wounded and the missing.
A strong ensemble of actor musicians, multi role and multi play with ease, and the energy is good throughout. Master of ceremonies Christopher Arkeston takes us through the end of the pier show with confident narration, Tom Crabtree expertly switches characters, Harry Curley is almost show stealing with his myriad of roles. Alice E Mayer effectively demonstrates the patriotic propaganda of the time, Chioma Uma provides a beautiful highlight as a nurse singing Keep The Home Fires Burning, and Euan Wilson an excellent Haig, showing that public school snobbery and the class system sent millions to their deaths. Particularly memorable is the church sequence, in which the soldiers rewrite the hymns to reflect their gallows humour, and the ending is particularly moving.
Director Nicky Allpress creates great invention and style, and Victoria Spearing’s set design is deceptively simple, allowing a free flow of action yet conveying all we need to know. From its conception, this work has always been a powerfully educative piece, and it remains so. It’s an intimate production, and maybe it felt a little lost in the big auditorium at the Mercury, but that takes nothing away from the power of Littlewood’s workshop.