Back in 1963 Oh What A Lovely War was the biggest hit that the notable company Theatre Workshop produced. Originally devised by artistic director Joan Littlewood in collaboration with her cast and inspired by a radio compilation of First World War songs, it's essentially a satire, conceived as an end-of-the-pier musical. Against the backdrop of a seaside promenade with a jovial cast dressed in pierrot costumes, a screen flashes up the horrendous statistics of the First World War and the massive contrast between the two is sometimes absurd, sometimes chilling in impact.
Every summer the Open Air stages a musical and it's good to see them making such an adventurous choice. In many ways the show seems somewhat over-extended at well past two hours, but then perhaps its length is a reflection on the protraction of the war itself which could easily have ended years earlier than 1918.
Consisting of a series of generally upbeat songs and skits designed at the time to raise morale at home and inspire enlistment, the musical's best moment is a rare display of tenderness when British and German troops briefly cease hostilities at Christmas Eve and sing together in the moonlight- a touching and gently amusing scene based upon a real event. The cast, expertly directed by Ian Talbot, are first-rate and contribute both enthusiasm and panache throughout - the quibble here is with the material itself which seems so much better suited to a shorter show. But most of the audience seemed happy enough and crowd-pleasing moments like John Hodgkinson's delightful turn as a incoherent army sergeant berating his men are certainly entertaining if you can dispel the shocking facts and figures of the war itself.
What the popular say....
MARK COOK for TIME OUT says, "Satire with a slightly dulled edge." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, " A brittle, funny and polished production then, but one that doesn't quite deliver the full emotional impact of this highly charged show." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The show's contemporary appositeness has dimmed." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Call it music-hall with teeth, vaudeville with bite." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "What makes the show so moving, ... is its ability to catch the texture of ordinary life." LISA MARTLAND for THE STAGE says, "This is good work and the cast gives its all but along the way the text loses some of its sharpness and the production's pace slows down dramatically."
External links to full reviews from newspapers
Production photos by Alastair Muir
Next review by Tom Keatinge
There is very little that compares with a warm summer’s evening in early August at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, particularly when the fare is as delicious as Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War. As a member of the younger generation, I was interested to see whether this 40 year old production of events that took place 85 years ago was really going to be as terrific as I had heard. With hindsight, why I ever doubted this, I can hardly imagine. On one level, Oh What a Lovely War is a ripping evening of song and dance, but more profoundly, it is a wonderful parody of the idiocy of war, holding up a mirror for those blinded by their own grandeur and ego, to study for themselves the reality of their actions.
Staged as an “end of pier” pierrot show, a genre that Littlewood had experienced as a child, Oh What a Lovely War takes us by means of war time song and dance favourites, on a journey through the different aspects of the Great War; the beginnings in Sarejevo, the home front innocence and the misinformation about the realities of the front lines, the woeful training of conscripts, life in the trenches, and (my favourite) the marvellous portrayal of the divine arrogance of Field Marshal Haig, are just some of the scenes. This is true ensemble work, with members of the cast assuming a vast variety of dancing and singing roles, from the comic to the deadly serious, and producing some marvellous performances.
First performed in 1963, Oh What a Lovely War was inspired by a radio compilation of songs from the First World War and is perhaps the most well known of the “alternative” productions from the Theatre Workshop that based itself at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Despite the company’s stated aim to provide an antidote to the commerical theatre of the day, to which they objected on “artistic, social and political grounds”, Oh What a Lovely War was an overnight success, earning a transfer from the East End into the heart of the enemy in the West End.
Oh What a Lovely War seemed to have almost been conceived with Regent’s Park in mind – the outdoor setting, the gathering dusk, holiday atmosphere and end-of-pier band all combined to provide a terrific evening’s entertainment that triumphs, and proves enduring, despite the passing of the years.