Joan Littlewood famously made theatrical history with this vivid, punchy slice of real-life history that provided a flesh-and-blood reminder of a seismic event that left over 10 million military personnel dead (plus 7 million more civilian deaths), some 25 million wounded and 7 million missing.
Originally premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East back in March 1963, before transferring to the West End's Wyndham's Theatre that June, it now returns to the place of its birth, and it is difficult to imagine a better place to see it. Somehow the spirit of its original creation seems to still reverberate in the building's gorgeous toy theatre dimensions, which may of course be romanticising the place's gorgeous inherent theatricality.
But the joy and earnest spirit of Terry Johnson's production is that it is anything but a romanticised gloss on the piece, but a fully inhabited, resonant and rewarding version of it that brings it alive for today.
As this year marks both the centenary of the start of the First World War and the birth of Littlewood, the firebrand theatrical director and producer who presided over the theatre from 1953 to 1974, it is a perfect moment to stop and take stock of where we've come from and where this unique theatre is going towards. It's not about nostalgia for the past – even as some of the songs reprised in it cast an inevitably nostalgic glow – but an essential reminder of theatre's ability to communicate both horror and happiness, often simultaneously.
Is there a more tender, beautiful scene on the London stage than the Christmas Eve encounter of the Gerrys (Germans) and Tommys (British) soldiers, as they sit in trenches on opposite sides of the same battlefield, and exchange first gifts, then songs, and then actually meet to share a drink?
That's just one moment, amongst many, that still have the ability to shock, startle and move in this amazing show. Littlewood's original daring, of course, was to replay these historical scenes through the prism of a jaunty pierrot show.
It is both beautiful and bold, honest and heartbreaking. And nothing is more deeply upsetting than the bald ticking off of deaths and casualties on an electronic board at the back of the stage as the events unfold.
Stratford East have assembled a first rate ensemble to bring it to searing, intense life, even in the face of frequent death, and there's expert musical direction from Mike Dixon (who is also the show's pianist) that makes it sound as good as Lez Brotherston's designs make it look.
"... more elaborate than the original ... But the sinews of the show are still there and the 12-strong cast works with tireless dedication."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"... 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."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press