The case for pacifism has never been made as boldly as in Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War and, 60 years on from this poignant show’s first performance, it has never felt quite so relevant either.
Littlewood and her workshop’s anti-war message cuts deep throughout Blackeyed Theatre’s touring production of what is now undoubtedly considered a classic piece in the British theatre canon. It’s not a typical musical, nor can it truly be considered a straight play. If you were looking for a label, a ‘play with music’ would be most appropriate.
But while its meaning and emotion irrefutably stand the test of time, there are some parts of the book which seem a touch frantic in a modern setting. Rather than relying on a character-led plot, this is essentially a collection of connected scenes which, for the most part, works but can become laboured and bogged down in its own subversiveness at times.
This is a remarkably talented group of performers who have been entrusted with this revered work. Harry Culley is a star in the making and his natural ability as a character actor is a joy to see. When he is feverishly lampooning the establishment, it is spellbinding. With the cast wearing circus-style make-up, his tone and movement gives Emcee vibes on occasion.
The company, made up of six actor-musos, works hard to ensure there is no let-up in pace. Alice E Mayer is wonderful from the first moment she saunters across the stage; as the show progresses, we see there are so many layers to her talents. Chioma Uma is also certainly worthy of mention for her moving rendition of ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ during Act Two.
The strength of Oh What a Lovely War is its juxtaposition between the light heartedness, often through the songs of the First World War era, and the raw horror of trench warfare. The display of devastating statistics is relentless and there were audible gasps in the audience as it was revealed the average life expectancy of a machine gunner under attack was four minutes.
Nicky Allpress’s direction is pitched perfectly for what is an intimate take on the piece, while Allan Valentine delivers an atmospheric lighting design. Oh What a Lovely War can be sharply witty in its mockery of privately-educated establishment figures of the time, before nimbly shifting to become harrowing or deeply moving. But it’s not perfect and some of the skits can be guilty of outstaying their welcome.
However, Blackeyed Theatre have succeeded in ensuring this 60-year-old show feels as relevant today as it ever was, while staying faithful to Littlewood’s original motives. It is a play that carries a strong anti-war message at its heart even if you only have to look at the daily news to see that we have still yet to learn from our past mistakes.
Oh What a Lovely War plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 9 December.
Review: Tom Ambrose Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown