Terry Johnson's engaging, lively revival of Oh What a Lovely War returns to Stratford East for a short run before another national tour.
Though freshly choreographed, this is pretty much a faultless production (if not quite an inspiring one) of the Theatre Workshop's bumpy, uneven, over-long but frequently inspired 1963 original. The best songs are well performed, the skits retain their mixture of mischief, cynicism and outrage, and in Ian Reddington the production has its ideal presiding compere - his pacey performance is both as affable and sinister as it is happily clear of ham. It's well supported by a cast whose enthusiasm and willingness to play to their audience is not difficult to warm to.
The shock value of Joan Littlewood's play has faded since it was first produced and it's not likely to inspire mass walkouts as it did during the 60s. Few now imagine the generals who presided over the war to have been anything other than lunatic incompetents, and a sketch on war profiteering (a little undermined in any case by some less than intelligible accents) lacks sufficient context to make for effective satire.
Instead the shock the musical now most inspires is one both of pity – the electronic ticker that charts the number of war dead at the back of the stage is still brutally effective – and simple human recognition in the unsentimental portrayal of soldiers' attitudes. The great service of Oh What a Lovely War is that almost uniquely in British theatre it represents the experience of common soldiers - rather than officers - and in rescuing so many of their songs pays them a tribute more vivid than any number of well-meaning histories.
The Pierrot figures the play evokes in its introduction are now largely unfamiliar to audiences – but their theatricality and indeed strangeness are far from alienating. They are stark reminders instead of how the soldiers themselves so often saw the "theatre of war" (a cliché that Ezra Pound paused over in The Cantos).
The songs that sustained the soldiers came from a music hall tradition now vanished and Littlewood's insistence that the cast sing them as though they were "miserable cold and dirty" seems completely appropriate: the sketch of the Christmas truce of 1914 is here so markedly different, so much more guarded and bleak and moving, than the ghastly Sainsbury's advert that won such acclaim at Christmas - that one can't help but hope it will be seen by packed houses throughout its tour.
Oh What A Lovely War runs at Richmond Theatre from 11-14 February before touring to Malvern (16-21 February), Manchester (24-28 February), Cambridge (2-7 March), Bath (9-14 March), Torquay (17-21 March), Guildford (23-28 March), Coventry (30 March-4 April), Brighton (7-11 April), Leicester (13-18 April), Aylesbury (28 April-2 May), Birmingham (5-9 May), Truro (11-16 May), Hull (19-23 May) and Wimbledon (26-30 May).