When I heard that the Theatre Royal in Stratford East was reviving the iconic show that premiered in that same theatre back in 1963 I had to buy a ticket right away, and that was over a year ago. I didn’t see the original production, so the opportunity to be able to sit in the same seats watching the same show folk were first watching fifty years ago was irresistible. My expectations were sky-high, and I was not disappointed.
Oh What a Lovely War is the First World War done as an end-of-the-pier pierrot show. This means bawdy humour, national stereotypes, goosing and bad jokes, most of which we probably wouldn’t be able to get away with now. But all this is counterpointed by a banner stretched across the back wall filling us in with the progress of the war. So for instance while we’re watching characters dancing to the Twelfth Street Rag we are being told ‘November …Somme battle ends …Total loss 1,332,000 men … Gain nil’. So a bit of you is laughing your socks off and then suddenly being caught up short, which means your emotions are being put through such a wringer that at one point – especially towards the end of the first act when the Jerries and the Tommies sing carols and started chucking Christmas presents at one another – it becomes almost unbearable. I can’t remember when I last felt quite so emotionally battered in the theatre.
There have been complaints, from Michael Gove in particular (our education secretary, for overseas readers) that shows like Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder present a distorted view of the war and undermine our soldiers’ bravery and heroism. It seems to me he is completely missing the point. The show goes nowhere towards glorifying war, quite the opposite, but nor does it neglect the fact that ordinary soldiers were anything other than astonishingly brave and remarkably heroic. However rather than presenting them as gung-ho heroes waving flags and singing patriotic songs we see a bunch of exhausted, muddy, disheartened and often badly wounded lads desperately trying to keep their spirits up by singing a bawdy song, knowing the next push will probably be their last. There is one scene where a bunch of French soldiers, resisting orders to advance as ‘lambs to the slaughter’, eventually do so and ‘baaa’ like sheep while being gunned down one by one.
As a chronical of war it may not be to an academic’s taste, and obviously not to an Education Secretary’s, but as a piece of theatre it is everything theatre should be. The ensemble cast is faultless. Joan Littlewood would have been proud.
Directed with great panache by Terry Johnson, it features among others Caroline Quentin – surprisingly good, I’ve never seen her on stage before – Saun Prendergast as a hilariously incomprehensible drill sergeant and Ian Bartholomew (last seen by me as a panto dame) as General Haig. Fabulous. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
It runs until 15 March at the Theatre Royal.
And here out of interest is Kenneth Tynan’s review of the original production, reprinted in The Guardian on 31 January:
Littlewood returns in triumph
It seems to me quite likely that when the annals of our theatre in the middle years of the twentieth century come to be written, one name will lead all the rest: that of Joan Littlewood. Others write plays, direct them or act in them: Miss Littlewood alone “makes theatre”.
She has come back to Theatre Workshop, after two years’ lamented absence, with a triumph unimaginable anywhere but on a stage; it belongs uniquely to its birthplace – the bare boards that are Littlewood’s home ground, filled with the passion of Littlewood’s home team.
According to the programme, Oh What a Lovely War (Theatre Royal, Stratford East) was “written by Charles Chilton and the Members of the Cast”; it is further described as a “group production under the direction of Joan Littlewood”; but I must risk the lady’s fury by insisting that it is essentially a one-woman show. The big, tough, purposeful heart that beats throughout the evening belongs only to Joan. You feel that her actors have a common attitude towards more than acting, a shared vision that extends to life in general; it is thus, rather than by any rehearsal method or technique of staging, that true theatrical style is born.
The plot is history: nothing less than the First World War. The cast is decked out in the ruffs and white satin suits of a seaside pierrot show. We are to witness (the compere brightly confides) that famous extravaganza, “the War Game”, enacted by the entire company with musical interludes drawn from songs of the period. The proscenium sparkles with fairy lights; and a terrible counterpoint is soon set up between the romanticism of the lyrics, all gaiety and patriotic gusto, and the facts of carnage in France. Illustrated by stills of the trenches and news reports flickering across an electrified ribbon screen.
Between songs. and with minor costume adjustments – the addition of a tunic, a helmet, a Sam Browne belt – the cast perform a montage of brisk, laconic sketches, rooted in improvisation but stripped of all irrelevant detail. We glimpse a bayonet practice, conducted in lightning gibberish; a military ball, rippling with intrigue; a shooting party of international tycoons, blazing away at wildfowl while debating the relative merits of various neutral trade routes for exporting arms to the enemy; and the Christmas truce on the Western Front, which Miss Littlewood handles with utter disdain for sentimentality – the Tommies recoil with nausea from a gift of German cheese, and respond by lobbing an inedible Christmas pudding into the opposite trenches.
Meanwhile, the songs grow more bitter; the lunatic Haig has taken command, and the dead are rotting in mountains, monuments to his unswerving conceit. And still, indestructibly if not always suddenly, everyone bursts out singing.
In the second half, the show tends to repeat itself, as the war so tragically did: but by then Miss Littlewood’s passion has invaded one’s bloodstream, and after the final scene, in which a line of reluctant heroes advances on the audience, bleating like sheep in a slaughterhouse, one is ready to storm Buckingham Palace and burn down Knightsbridge barracks. The production brings off a double coup: it is revolutionary alike in content and form. And even those who mistrust revolution can hardly deny that it has the most memorable score in London.
The cast (an ensemble from which I invidiously select the names of Ann Beach, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti and Brian Murphy) behaves with the same relaxed audacity that Miss Littlewood captured on film in Sparrows Can’t Sing. I hope success will not doom her present troupe to the fate that immobilised its predecessors: indefinite incarceration in the dreaded West End.