Terry Johnson revives Oh What a Lovely War
The 1963 musical which recalls the gruesome events of WWI has returned to its original home the Theatre Royal, Stratford East
…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 but also an angry lament for the obscene carnage of war in general and this War in particular… the show is some sort of nightmarish expansion of the recruitment scenes in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II… 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… 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.
If ever a show deserved to be called "iconic" it was Joan Littlewood's original 1963 musical entertainment... Terry Johnson's revival, while retaining such vital features as the pierrot costumes and the newsreel ticker tape, is no slavish carbon copy, but a reimagining of a show that still leaves one emotionally devastated… appeal to conflicting emotions has always been the secret of the show's success, and Johnson's production conveys this excellently towards the end... Shaun Prendergast acts as MC and does the famous, totally incomprehensible drill routine; Ian Bartholomew and Michael Simkins perfectly establish the detachment from reality of the military leaders; and Caroline Quentin renders the recruiting song, I'll Make a Man of You!, with a classy suggestiveness… Johnson's production has heart and soul and rightly restores a classic for a new generation.
The show feels unfocused for the first 20 minutes. But then the song "Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser" works its jaunty magic, and from that point the rhythm is much more sure… There's a homespun feel about Johnson's production which is true to the spirit of the original while also making deft use of projections (the video design is by Ian William Galloway)... The show remains didactic and certainly doesn't present a charitable vision of the American contribution to the war effort, while there's a strong Sixties sensibility in its picture of working-class lions being exploited by upper-class donkeys. Yet this revival pulses with skill and ardour. It is at its best not in the episodes of brisk comedy but in its moments of poignancy, notably during the 1914 Christmas truce, which is almost unbearably moving.
...Terry Johnson's production is awash with mischievous energy, but despite the best efforts of Michael Gove – cheekily referenced at the start – the show's ironic vaudevillian skits and songs were written for a different time and now preach to the converted. The first half feels predicated on the shock factor of pointing out the pointlessness of the conflict...The second half, though, is angrier, weightier and transcendent of the original context... Johnson's innovations come into their own: horrendous photographs from the trenches contextualise a conflict that has passed from living memory, and an electronic ticker tape that relays the almost unbelievable casualties is like a bayonet to the guts... A fine, feisty ensemble – which includes Caroline Quentin and Shaun Prendergast – set about matters with invigorating pizzazz. If we'll never really appreciate the impact this thing had in '63, its presence in the twenty-first century is justified, as a cracking entertainment and an almighty warning.
Has this burlesque of the horrors of the First World War become a museum piece in the 51 years since it first opened at this very venue? For the first half of Terry Johnson's fine revival, I suspected that it has. The performances are ebullient and the staging is smart as actors in Pierrot costumes sing and dance with knowing glibness. Yet none of this pointed fun is actually very funny... As Oh What a Lovely War went on, though, I was surprised, moved and, yes, entertained by a show - originally devised by a team led by Joan Littlewood - that becomes more tragical than comical. The change comes after a scene that dramatises British and German soldiers in a Christmas ceasefire... So this bustling reminder of the true cost of war, expertly played by an ensemble of 12, well choreographed by Lynne Page, resonates all over again.
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