Review: Oh What A Lovely War at Malvern Theatres
- Credit: Alastair Muir
In these turbulent times, a revival of Oh What A Lovely War isn’t simply entertainment; it’s a necessity, says Katie Jarvis, who went to see Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Oh What A Lovely War (February 16-21)
War – what is it good for? Well, theatre, for one thing; to remind you, as you sit being entertained, that somewhere, someone is being shot; blown to smithereens; beheaded.
Just a minute! I hear you say. This is a theatre review! A theatre with ice creams and a huge glass of red wine in the interval. And yes, yes, that’s the point. When that thespian radical Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop crew devised Oh What A Lovely War back in 1963, she wanted people to laugh mockingly at the sheer horrible, futile, barbaric nothingness of conflict, singing cheerful songs loudly into its ugly face. She drew lines – of course she drew lines. Original scenes showing the gassing of the trenches never saw the curtain go up; they were just too disturbing.
So what she did instead – what Malvern Theatres are showing, with the current Theatre Royal Stratford East production – is to juxtapose. Here, on the stage, are Pierrots with funny hats, joshing with the audience – “Ooh! Take off your coat, madam. You won’t feel the benefit, otherwise!” – cheery demeanours belying the story they’re about to tell. How similar to that summer of 1914, when all was optimism and bravado. Behind the actors, in original black and white photographs, smiling young men queue in their droves at the Army Recruiting Office.
And the actors, cartwheeling and smiling, sing the songs -
A silly German sausage
Dreamt Napoleon he’d be,
- 1 20 of the best places to eat out in St Ives
- 2 Fossil hunting in Essex: Where to find shark teeth
- 3 A fond farewell to Torbay from the captain of cruise ship Eurodam
- 4 20 of the best restaurants in Hertfordshire
- 5 35 great Surrey pubs with beer gardens and terraces
- 6 13 beautiful riverside pubs to visit in the Cotswolds
- 7 19 great places to eat outdoors in Cheshire after lockdown
- 8 12 outdoor dining experiences in Surrey
- 9 17 of the best spots for al fresco dining in Essex
- 10 10 great hill walks in Cheshire
Then he went and broke his promise,
It was made in Germany.
When Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser – with its steady, marching rhythm - was first recorded in October 1914, patriotism was all-pervasive. The economic British Expeditionary Force, together with plucky Belgians, had jolly well given the Germans what for. Hurrah!
But then the figures begin rolling past us, on that Malvern stage. Deaths in their thousands. Deaths in their millions. Figures that become as mundane as a football scare. War: Several million; Gains: 0.
“Everyone laughed at me when I said I wanted to become a comedian,” a Pierrot tells the audience. “Well, they’re not laughing now.” And neither, suddenly, are those black and white figures, stuck in the nightmare of history. As the casualty lists are pinned up, the women on stage – working in munitions factories where explosions also maim and kill – peer up and down, looking for (no, dreading finding!) a name they recognise. Four of the Arkwrights. What must their mother feel?
And still the girls, singing gaily, throw feathers at the cowardly audience:
“One particular Saturday night in March 1915, I had just past my 18th birthday and I was on my own as many of my school friends, who were older than I, had already joined up. In our earlier years, we had formed a little coterie of young men and spent Saturday evenings in a herbal shop drinking herb beer a ha-penny a pot. On this particular night, I went alone to the picture theatre. During an interval, there were some females who had taken it upon themselves to go round the audience handing out white feathers to men whom they thought young enough to be in the forces,” my great uncle once told me. Even though he was in a protected profession – keeping the railways going – it was too much. He joined up. Eighteen was eligible for slaughter.
What an essential production this is. And the cast – so many I can’t mention them by name – gave it their all, with multi-talents that included gymnastics, singing, dancing, comedy and playing it straight. Wendi Peters surely has to have a mention. Cilla in Coronation Street (for more than four years, and recently returned), she gave the production a music-hall quality that embodied the spirit of the age with perfection. Lauren Hood clearly has a glittering career ahead, too.
This is funny and spirited and important. And deeply moving, too. ‘Have we learned nothing?’ is the hollow cry, as the woman behind me in the interval turns to her friend and urgently says, “We have to do something about ISIL.”
The final photograph is of six young men, looking out from the trenches; in their eyes, we can see they understand their fate. We understand it, too.
And as the cast turn to face that ominous photograph, quietly taking off their hats in tribute to those young soldiers, the final laugh echoes through the theatre, to be replaced – in my case, at least - by the silence of tears.
• Malvern Theatres are at Grange Road, Malvern, Worcestershire, WR14 3HB; the box office is on 01684 892277. And you can see find out what’s on, and book tickets, at www.malvern-theatres.co.uk