Literarily telling the story of World War 1 through song and dance, Oh What A Lovely War packs a powerful punch and is a brilliant example of an ensemble piece of theatre.
Directed by Erica Whyman and Sam Kenyon, the show will always be associated with Joan Littlewood but there direction makes the show look fresh and sadly is still all too relevant today. While the timescale in the musical is the 1914-18 Great War, with British Soldiers still being killed almost daily in Afghanistan and the town of Wootton Bassett all to regularly coming to a standstill as a mark of respect to the fallen, it is still chillingly relevant today.
The show starts with a bunch of music hall performers literally ambling on stage encouraging the audience to ignore them and keep chatting until they are ready. Then we are transported by comedy and song back to 1914 . Across the back wall of the set a red line appears similar to the BBC news, which keeps us updated of events and the mounting body count during the show. The clock we are so used to seeing on TV represents the year we are in 19:14 then 19:15. This is a brilliant touch that keeps the audience up to date with the story which is instantly recognisable and therefore links 1914 to 2010 and allows the realisation of the loss of life to hit home, without interfering with the on stage action, which becomes darker and darker as the war progresses.
As we move through the years the full horror of war is brought to life by the use of simple but effective props. When we reach Christmas in the trenches, the audience finds itself in the “No Man’s Land” as the warring sides are both on stage and at the back of the auditorium shouting over our heads.
The songs in the show are very familiar and include: It’s a Long Way To Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep The Home Fires Burning. Each number is not only sung but performed by the talented cast using a wide selection of instruments.
The recommended age limit for the show is 12 but as my daughter, who is slightly under the recommended age limit but used to theatre, is studying World War 2 at school, I took her so could try and understand what had happened in The Great War. She was hooked from the start and the show created quite a debate on the way home and questions about the trenches and life during that period. Admittedly on occasions there was, what could be described as, occasional strong language but it was nothing she had not already heard in the playground. Also in front of us was a large school party and they were equally transfixed. In fact it’s hard to remember when an audience has been so focused on a production; there was no talking or rattling of sweet papers, which is a credit to all involved.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, this is a production not to be missed, as it brings comedy to the ironies and tragedies of war and is sadly still all too relevant after all these years.