For the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, and the fiftieth of Joan Littlewood’s creative, inventive musical entertainment, the adventurous Theatre Royal Stratford East in London has put on a new production of the show, sticking to the original script and music as first put together by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles, Charles Chilton and all the members of the original cast. Murray Melvin, who was also in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, among many other famous shows, is now working as the archivist and historian in residence at the TRSE, and he confirms what I felt when I saw this show – that everything in it comes from meticulous research by the whole company into the period.
Everything on that stage happened – every song was sung in the context in which it is presented – and all the statistics displayed are accurate. Far from denigrating the soldiers or their heroism, though it has some questions about the “donkeys” who led the war and imposed the strategies, Oh, What a Lovely War shows us a huge amount of heroism and wry, black humour among the ordinary soldiers in the trenches, and also displays the early war fever and the growing weariness with the war with accuracy. I would argue that Oh What a Lovely War is one of the best ways to introduce the topic to schoolchildren or anyone else and to get them interested in this period of history.
The show is presented as a review, a vaudeville, a musical hall production; it is truly Brechtian in its approach; it is an exemplar of real Theatre of Alienation. Its techniques are eclectic and its impact is dazzling. Oh, What a Lovely War works. It also succeeds on several levels at the same time; and this production is true to its original intention. (The film that was made of it is not bad, but it is, I feel, far more sentimentalized.) It creates a tough and touching experience for the audience.
Full credit must be given to the entire strong, ensemble cast and the way they work together. Everyone stands out at one moment or another, and then blends seamlessly back into the ensemble, so it would be invidious to mention any one turn. Either that, or I have to name each member of the company individually for superb commitment and work. Full marks also to Terry Johnson for his direction, Lez Brotherston for his design, Mike Dixon for his musical supervision; and to all in the band. And though it can leave you feeling very sad about the lovely war, this production works as a great theatrical treat.
In my opinion, this is one of the most seriously exciting pieces of theatre on in London at the moment, just as sheer theatre – and it’s a real history lesson at the same time. Michael Gove couldn’t be more wrong or misguided. Maybe he’s just misinformed by his friends? But now he has a chance to learn a thing or two – the show is right there for him to see and experience. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it transfers to the West End. As it did in 1964, when it also went to Paris and New York! See it at the TRSE if you possibly can!