The words “Oh What a Lovely War”, “Theatre Royal Stratford East” and “Joan Littlewood” are inextricably linked, and have had almost legendary status within British 20th century drama ever since the show first appeared in 1963. It was originally a radio play by Charles Chilton, which was then developed by Joan Littlewood in conjunction with the whole of the original Theatre Workshop cast, to create this iconic, epic musical, telling the story of World War One through song and dance. The show was another on my bucket list of Still haven’t seen it after all these years and it’s about time I did. There is a film, that I also haven’t seen, directed by Richard Attenborough, that Joan Littlewood, apparently, hated. I’m not surprised – he ruined A Chorus Line too.
The highly stylised production gets as far away from the typical depiction of war as possible – Joan Littlewood didn’t want it to be horrific in any way. Instead the notion of war and the hard facts of fatalities are juxtaposed with a music hall and commedia dell’arte presentation to create its own, telling, anti-war story. Every barrier is broken down in this production. It starts off with the actors mingling with the audience, chatting about the performance they are about to see. Sadly no one mingled with us, but I overheard one performer explaining that he was wearing a pierrot costume as was traditionally worn in early 20th century revue shows, and as was used in the original Stratford East production. I saw another talking to an audience member and pointing out which one he was in the programme. So you’re starting with a great sense of equality between the cast and the audience, a level playing field where we’re all sharing the same experience, no matter whether we be audience member or performer.
There is a main MC who addresses the audience throughout the entire show apart from when he takes on a few different characters. He introduces us to the different songs and sketches as though this were some Edwardian end of the pier show – hence the suitability of the pierrot costumes. He encourages us to sing along with the songs if we know them. The majority of the under-lubricated matinee audience weren’t up for that, apart from the man two to my right who bellowed his way solo throughout much of the afternoon. You would have thought self-consciousness would kick in at some point, wouldn’t you? Cast members rush on and off the stage at odd moments and 90% of the material is extremely light-hearted. Act One takes us to the beginning of the war, with actors assuming the roles of nations having agreements and arguments in the lead-up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. It reminded me of a rather trendy history teacher getting the kids up in front of the class to act out war campaigns. I almost expected to see a blackboard rubber representing the Treaty of Versailles. We then see the early stages of the war, and the expectation it would all be over by Christmas. The act culminates in the famous 1914 Christmas trench scene, with the Germans singing Stille Nacht and Tommy and Fritz playing football in No Man’s Land – simply but very effectively staged.
Act Two takes us further into the war, where the innocent pleasure of enjoying light-hearted entertainment is constantly shattered by an electronic newsreel across the back of the stage, recounting the numbers dead or injured on individual days or at particular battlefields. Every so often you take your eyes of the performers just to read the horrendous casualty statistics. They bring the simple lightness of the stagey songs and dances into perspective. The audience questions itself as to how it reacts. How can we fritter away our time whilst they’re dying on the Somme? But there’s nothing we can do to stop it. And, actually, isn’t having fun what life really should be all about? Guilt, resignation, and powerlessness are just some of the emotions that overcome the audience. And, as the MC points out at the end, that this doesn’t only apply to World War One. When will the massacre of innocent people in war end? Will it ever end? Sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. The show is still a really forceful weapon in the argument against war, and Littlewood’s and Theatre Workshop’s left-wing bias stands out (refreshingly, in my opinion).
Ever since the BBC dropped The Good Old Days, you don’t get to hear these old songs as often as we used to – in the good old days, in fact. Songs like It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the Home Fires Burning remain wartime standards; whilst Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts and I’ll Make a Man of You recollect the best music-hall traditions. A couple – Here Comes a Whizzbang, and Bells of Hell stop you dead in your tracks with the sheer horror of what they convey, and one, I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, brings a lump to your throat with the soldier’s simple plea for the return of his old life. On a personal note, it was lovely to hear Roses in Picardy again, as it was a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, and I used to enjoy playing it on the piano when I were a lad.
It’s an excellent cast who work together really well as an ensemble, both as pierrot entertainers and in their individual character sketches. Ian Reddington takes on the role of the MC with a likeable blend of cheek and cheese, plenty of knowing looks to the audience, but also full of portent when it comes to the gloomy prospects for the future. I really enjoyed him in the stupid but very funny sketch about the unintelligible sergeant barking garbled waffle at his troops. Taking the lead female role is Wendi Peters, larger than life and with a belter of a voice. In fact, if anything, her voice was a little too loud in comparison with everyone else. She’s one of these performers who simply doesn’t need amplifying. She brought out all the naughty music hall double entendres in her songs and has a wonderful stage presence. But all the cast are excellent; if you come to see the show, watch out for William Oxborrow struggling with an umbrella as a rifle and Alex Giannini’s hilarious “stage fright” moment.
The show is still to visit Aylesbury, Birmingham, Truro, Hull and Wimbledon on its tour, and I’d recommend it for its emotionally strong anti-war vibe as well as its unusual and entertaining no fourth wall qualities. You come away with a sense of true gratitude and humility for the lives lost in war. Despite the preponderance of WW1 songs and clichés, its message is as relevant today as ever.