Oh What a Lovely War – the musical

Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London

Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War has turned into one of those shows that goes beyond iconic. Littlewood in fact had a string of successes to her name as doyenne of the old Victorian Theatre Royal in Stratford East like discovering Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), Brendan Behan (The Quare Fellow and The Hostage) and Lionel Bart (Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be) as well as classical revivals such as Volpone, Twelfth Night and Richard II with Harry H Corbett.

© Alastair Muir

© Alastair Muir

But it is her end-of-pier salute to the WW1 fallen and scathing satire on those who led them – `lions led by donkeys’ – that will forever be associated with Joan Littlewood’s name and the company who developed it with her, Theatre Workshop.

I had the good fortune to see the original production, watching it as a 20-year old from the back of sawdust strewn stalls. Its impact was immediate and has stayed with me as a touchstone by which so much of my later theatre-going has been judged. Seeing it again more than fifty years later and after a year of WW1 commemorations, inevitably the impact is lessened. But what a remarkable piece of work it continues to be and how carefully Terry Johnson has followed and reminted the style and spirit of the original.

© Alastair Muir

© Alastair Muir

First revived last year and now back for a second short burst before going out on tour (see Stratford East website www.stratfordeast.com), what makes the show still reverberate is of course its subject, the needless loss of life brilliantly underlined by LIttlewood and Gerry Raffles as a news ticker-tape at the back of the stage bearing the mounting cost: `800,000 dead. Ground gained: Nil’.

Then there is the withering social/political critique (how often do we get that these days!) that informs every fibre of the show enshrined in its `war-game’, Variety/music hall setting. Its high point continues to be the WW1 soldiers’ songs contained within it, the words re-written by them to express their own increasing sense of betrayal and re-arranged with jaunty irony by another Littlewood colleague, Charles Chilton.

A powerful combination of the tragi-comic, there’s an interesting generational thing in seeing the show now in 2015. Grey-haired members of the audience certainly partly see it as an opportunity for a nostalgic singalong – It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles etc – and even the show’s own headline song.

But for a new generation, something else must be pressing itself upon them. The sheer scale and monstrosity of the war, the sudden, deeply moving `fraternisation’ that occurred on Christmas Day between `Tommy’ and `Fritz’ in nomansland and the self-righteous priggery of the generals, especially Haig who’s certainty that the next `great push’, no matter how great the loss of human life, will bring victory, guided by his conviction that his actions have God’s blessing at all times – all of these must chill a first-time spectator as much as outrage seasoned viewers all over again.

Hard to single out individual performances though Coronation Street’s Wendi Peters makes a happy addition belting out the naughty `recruiting’ number `I’ll Make a Man of You’ (sung by Maggie Smith in the Richard Attenborough film) and by contrast, Alice Bailey Johnson gives the sweetest, unadorned account of Keep the Home Fires Burning.

Led by Ian Reddington as the sardonic, clown like master-of-ceremonies (Brian Murphy in the original), the company which combines youth and experience in equal measure do Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and the millions affected by WW1 and its memories, proud.

Now wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone take on our more recent militaristic escapades and `adventures’ in similarly colourful and battling style. Too close for comfort perhaps still…?

First published in Londongrip Feb 2015