It is very rarely that I give a 5 star rating to any production and I only do so when I feel that a production truly exceeds expectations. This covers all aspects of the work - the technical presentation, the director's vision and the performance of the cast. The Northern Stage production of Oh! What a Lovely War does just that. It takes a minor modern classic and gives it a new spin that serves the original creators with honour and communicates with devastating emotional directness.
Erica Whyman and Sam Keynon direct with passion and panache. Taking such an iconic original and making it fresh for modern audiences is never an easy task but they embrace the Music Hall roots of Joan Littlewood's script and add their own twists - drawing largely on the modern phenomenom of burlesque. With a wider range of musical influences, the arrangements (played by the talented cast) are fresh, modern and full of wit - but there is always a harsh edge to the comedy. I am certain that Littlewood would have approved mightily of this reworking.
The cast are, indeed, very talented. This is the first production where I have felt that using actor-musicians truly worked. It suits the style of the piece perfectly and they use their instruments as part of the storytelling not just as backing for the action. They work together as a tight ensemble yet retain their individuality throughout - adding greatly to the character of the production. It would be wrong to single out any individual for specific praise - they are all on top form from start to finish.
Visually the show is designed with great flair - Angela Simpson and Charles Balfour make excellent use of a very limited palette to create a very rich series of stage pictures. The use of projection (including a timely reminder of the BBC News Ticker) is incorporated smoothly, never once feeling like an add-on.
After what has been quite a disappointing start to my theatrical year, I am delighted to say that this is something special. As a production it has great warmth, enormous humour and packs a hefty political and emotional punch. It is too easy to forget the suffering that war brings - our modern media never quite captures the true horrors involved. It is incredible that popular songs and the Music Hall idiom can be combined to tell of the pity of war with such honesty and clarity.