Political theatre, depending upon one’s own views and those of the writer, will always be something that is either loved or hated. Unless that is, like Joan Littlewood, you pick a subject which unites people of all political persuasions. The futility of war is something that has been, and will be, debated throughout time, but this production makes one thing very clear – somehow you have to laugh, or you would never stop crying.
On a stage set with over 30 costumes, hanging on chest-high white crosses, and with a small bandstand to one side, five extremely talented actor / musicians begin to tell the story of the Great War – the First World War, the War to End All Wars.
To assist them in this endeavour there is a stage-wide screen onto which are flashed images that reflect the full horror of war, interspersed with a succession of totally mind-blowing facts and figures.15 million deaths, over 20 million casualties and 7 million more people simply listed as missing.
In a stroke of theatrical genius, bordering on madness, the story is told in a series of short sketches, wartime songs, cross-dressing campery and with a modicum of audience participation. The whole package, billed as a musical entertainment, is very reminiscent of the wartime concert parties so perfectly showcased in the television comedy It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Low on scenery, low on budget, high on wardrobe and even higher on talent.
Paul Morse, Robert Harding, Ben Harrison, Tom Neill and Joseph Mann are the five talented performers who sing, dance and act their way through the story, starting very much in a music hall / vaudeville style and then, gradually, adding pathos and poignancy by the bucket-load once the action transfers to the trenches.
Creating an array of characters from gossiping housewives and battlefield nurses to European military leaders and an almost incomprehensible drill sergeant, they make this show a whirlwind from start to finish.
The famous Christmas Day gift exchange and the depiction of “The Final Push” with the troops literally bleating like lambs on their way to the slaughter were moments of complete brilliance in a performance that was extremely enthusiastically received by an audience which, it was obvious, also re-visited some poignant memories.