This new production of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop musical giant Oh What A Lovely War by Blackeyed Theatre digs in at Southwark Playhouse as part of awide national tour, 60 years after the original production premiered to acclaim at Theatre Royal Stratford East. If anti-war satire can do anything, this is surely its moment, though the cultural dial seems to have definitively shifted so far on the ways in which the First World War was conducted that the evening doesn’t feel particularly barbed or risky – perhaps in part due to how entrenched the influence of this musical has become.
Under Nicky Allpress’ direction, a terrifyingly adept company of six actor-musos walks and talks us through the genesis, mishandling and long cruelty of the war at a mile a minute. Most strikingly, the production manages to completely banish any sense of smug, retroactive knowing, even as the death toll mounts and the callous decisions of the generals and politicians might be met with an audience sucking their teeth. The characters are utterly present, not winkingly looking back. There’s little sarcasm – it doesn’t seem needed.
Naomi Gibbs’ costuming marries Littlewood’s original Pierrot concept with a wide array of military uniforms: it’s playful yet sumptuous, and completely distinct from when the company last took on the same musical in 2011. Southwark Playhouse’s larger stage feels packed with light and charm in Victoria Spearing’s tent-like design, while Alan Valentine’s warm and nimble lighting fittingly bases us very much in the circus world rather than a trench realism.
Musical director Ellie Verkerk and movement director Adam Haigh work with Allpress to make certain this company only seem to rest for a moment when pretending to be dead. They’re chipper beyond belief and in lovely voice, playing more instruments in Tom Neill’s jolly, clear orchestration than you’d believe could fit onstage, even simultaneously at times. Characters are quickly and efficiently sketched, from the jibbering, slavering drill sergeant to munitions girls gossiping at home to resolute and immoveable commanding officers. You’re in danger of being handed a white feather if in the first two rows, though only a single singalong is encouraged: very restrained.
It only begins to slow down a hair after the first half, as the chilling projections of simple facts above the actors become difficult to even imagine (11615 men lost in 15 hours, for instance). It’s frenetic, and it’s hard to follow some of the politicking in the second act at points despite the production’s great efforts in clarifying movement and array of accents, but the production’s never boring for a moment. Choosing earnestness over cynicism in its bearing every time, it plays things breathlessly, and alarmingly straight.