The cast of Oh What a Lovely War
The cast of Oh What a Lovely War
© Francis Loney

There's a long, long trail a-winding… 50 years since Joan Littlewood's legendary production opened on this very stage, a century since the start of the Great War. Yet Terry Johnson's expertly cast and powerfully moving revival is both a reaffirmation of the original show's strengths and a brave new whirl.

Lovely War is a pierrot show with songs, battles and a few jokes ("Where would we be without a sense of humour?" "Germany") but also an angry lament for the obscene carnage of war in general and this War in particular: the electric newsreel runs coldly counter to the satirical and musical action: ten million dead, it says at the end, 20 million wounded, seven million lost. You still gasp.

Using songs of the period, including Ivor Novello's "Keep the Home Fires Burning," subverted hymns and music hall patter, the show is some sort of nightmarish expansion of the recruitment scenes in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II.

But the dramaturgy is robust in its own right: the bumbling babble of the international "war games" frenzy; the Christmas ceasefire in the trenches; the jostling for position at a military ball; a scathing analysis of international business interests extending the war ad infinitum; the French trench fodder going, literally, like lambs to the slaughter and half-rising on elbows to sing "Adieu la vie."

Caroline Quentin
Caroline Quentin
© Francis Loney

Four of the original cast were in the first night audience, but Johnson's troupe remained un-cowed. Hoary-voiced Shaun Prendergast, for instance, makes the gobbledegook earful of the famous drill sergeant routine entirely his own. Caroline Quentin as a musical hall diva shows a different sort of recruitment drive to Lord Kitchener's, while Michael Simkins is a model major general, among many other things.

The quick-change adornments to the bobbly clown costumes – army clobber, funny moustaches, red tunics, frou-frou skirts, Kaiser Bill helmets – are endless, but there's never a hitch. And designer Lez Brotherston's cleverly evocative design of a glinting steel proscenium with hinged side-doors of boxes and platforms – an echo of the theatre's own architecture – is infinitely adaptable for battle, ball, Lord Haig's office or the platform at Waterloo Station.

There's nothing messy or mushy about the show at all. Ian Bartholomew, superb throughout, even makes Haig a troubled, fractious figure marching as blindly into the void as the thousands of men he's despatched there before him. Mike Dixon's musical direction and arrangements are beautifully judged, too, and the voices in the cast of 12 cunningly matched.

Invidiously, I salute the versatility of Alice Bailey Johnson, Tom Lorcan and Alex Giannini, and note the slinky star power of Zoe Rainey, who begins the evening innocently enough as a supposed usherette in the stalls.

The British Tommies are said to have fought like lions, led by donkeys. Some historians now dispute the donkey charge; but there's a moment I'd completely forgotten when the unquenchable Quentin as a suffragette reads out a scorching condemnation of the War by George Bernard Shaw. This is much more about the senseless loss of life than attaching political blame. And, as we are reminded in a downbeat conclusion, it still goes on, all over the world.

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