Oh What A lovely War Review 1998

  • Date:
    Saturday, April 25, 1998
    Review by:
    John Timperley

    OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR depicts in a charming, startling, and hardly believable way, the Western Front events in the 1914-1918 World War I when 1,000,000 of our finest young men lived out a carnival of carnage on the poppy fields of France and Belgium. The war to end all wars was a complicated mess - the conclusion of which was so unsatisfactory that the seeds were sown of another, even bigger war, when Hitler assumed power and established Nazi Germany.

    It says much for Fiona Land's direction and the young cast's excellent playing, that the events are portrayed as they really were, in the squalor and macabre humour of the trenches, rather than as a glorious march of victorious gladiators into the warmth of a welcoming sunset.

    There are an abundance of cliches in the spoken word. Peace In Our Time. War Games. War Is Unthinkable. War Is A Political Necessity. War Makes Men Of Boys.

    What a load of baloney. War makes dead men of live boys. You never saw anything as pathetic as state leaders and military commanders, willing the subordinate masses to lay down their lives for causes they couldn't come near to understanding - except the one, for all Europeans, which passes understanding - patriotism.

    For all that, this is a wonderful piece of theatre in which the horrors are beautifully balanced by the humour and some wonderfully warm performances. If I were touring it, I'd have matinees every day of the week so that our young people could get an afternoon off school to smell a circus tent, eat a ton of popcorn, and get on intimate terms with their heritage.

    You could rightly call it a history lesson. Or a geography lesson. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. Germany declares war on Russia. Germany declares war on France. Britain declares war on Germany.

    The Battles of Mons, Flanders, The Marne, Ypres, The Somme, Gallipoli intermingled with the Russian Revolution, the Irish Easter Uprising, and the Suffragettes in chains for freedom - just to keep the kettle boiling back home.

    The play is encapsulated in a seaside concert party of Pierrots compered superbly in the chronic humour of the day by David Arneil. who reminded me of Alan Cumming in CABARET? He could do worse.

    In fine voice and form singing Roses Of Picardy and Keep The Home Fires Burning, Joanna Riding complements her earlier RNT work in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, CAROUSEL and GUYS AND DOLLS. I'm not sure about the vibrato - or was that the vogue in 1914.

    Other performers brought essences of remembrances to their work. RNT afficionados might think of Sonia Swaby as Clive Rowe's sister. She has a voice as good as Shirley Bassey and in playing a lady of easy virtue she has us convinced that, in the words of the song - "she could make a man of any one of you".

    Similarly, in Elizabeth Renihan's Hitchy Koo she encompasses the humourous qualities of Maureen Lipmann and Joyce Grenfell - giving us two for the price of one. How can you lose.

    I could go on and on about this play - there are so many fine performances. Clive Hayward's Earl Haig showing stoicism, stubborness and stupidity as he marched his men to their deaths in millions. Pompous Colonel Blimps. Nutty continental commanders bemused by British eccentricities. Who could blame the poor sods.

    Things haven't changed much in that respect. We still expect everyone to speak our language - we're British for God's sake.

    My absolute favourite scene depicted our inompetent, adorable Tommies - failing miserably to learn their rifle drill under the command of a maniacal drill sergeant, brilliantly played by David Birrell It's a belly laugh scene involving crutches, crotches and masturbatory manipulations of phallic symbols which leave nothing to the imagination. In short, it's dirty. In a different way to a war.

    Keep your eyes open for this play. It will suddenly appear on your village green - just like Chipperfields Circus, and it will excite you just as much if you've had the good sense to get a ticket.


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