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Oh What a Lovely War

Oh What a Lovely War

Joan Littlewood

20 - 27 June 2009

Pat Shrimpton


Synopsis

“Oh What a Lovely War” was first performed at the Lewes Little Theatre in 1966 and now we repeat the play to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Theatre.

Charles Chilton devised a radio documentary on the First World War, juxtapositioning facts and statistics with songs of the period. From this, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop created the stage musical “Oh What a Lovely War” which opened in 1963.

The result is a very emotive story with truth, tragedy, pathos yet humour, told and sung by a cast of Pierrots and Pierettes.

World War 1 was at first thought to be “The War to end all Wars,” but this satire really shows the futility of conflict, and draws very strong parallels with what is still happening in the world today.

This is an ensemble production, with actors playing multiple parts.

The Wardrobe Department has a full set of 9 Pierrot and 5 Pierrette costumes from the recent production for hire to theatre groups. £15 per outfit. For more information contact the Wardrobe department at the theatre.

Review

If you did not see this, eat your heart out. It was immensely enjoyable, and nearly flawless. The audience was thoroughly entertained - although, to my great surprise, some older people were visibly upset. It obviously taps into memories which, although transmitted through the generations from the distant past, are still painful.

The obvious danger with such an episodic play is that the very many transitions – often quite complex – will end up a bit clunky. Not here. The whole thing flowed like water and, quite quickly, even developed a strong underlying rhythm. David Moon’s set served the play well: plenty of space for the considerable action, but enlivened by a band-stand at the rear and balconies each side at the front. Mike Batchelor, Trevor Morgan and Gareth Budden carried out the frighteningly vast and complicated sound and lighting plots perfectly, even though I understand time ran short for technical rehearsal. The presence throughout of a live, very accomplished three-piece band – playing from its own Edwardian bandstand – greatly contributed to the play’s fluency as well as lending to everything the magic of immediacy. Putting some of the scenes behind a screen – like “The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling” – was extremely imaginative, thus turning them into black-and-white newspaper cartoons. Both acting and singing were of an extremely high standard, even in the smallest parts (proof of the director’s meticulousness, surely). I was genuinely astonished to discover how many of our actors are also excellent singers: Jenny Lloyd-Lyons and Meg Depla-Lake singing and tap-dancing their way brilliantly through “Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser;” Margaret Funnell’s really entrancing rendition of “Keep the home fires burning”; Chris Parke’s “Silent Night” (in German, no less) and “A long, long trail a-winding”; Alan Lade’s excellent “Christmas Day in the Cookhouse”; Belinda Sharpe’s “King and Country”.; and Tony Potter’s heart-breaking “Roses of Picardy”. Newcomer Andy Hutchison was perfect as the Master of Ceremonies: immediately on intimate terms with the audience, filled with youthful energy, a touch of the sinister sometimes. (Was this part the original for the MC in the film ‘Cabaret’, perhaps?) All of the playing had a joie de vivre about it, in spite of the grim subject matter, which suggests that although the rehearsal process was long, it was happy. Everybody just seemed to be enjoying themselves. But of course, the presence of the Pierrots and Pierrettes gives everything a bitter tone, too. A bitterness which jumps out at us again, very unexpectedly, with the arrival of the French serial murderer Landru (a suitably imposing Nick Cooper) carrying his latest victim (Dawn Boxall) like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder. “With all this killing going on and they never called me up.!..” Some passages must be quite difficult to do well - the episode toward the beginning with the Generals in their car, for example, the dialogue lurching ridiculously from one pot-holed topic to another, in two languages; executed to perfection by Tony Potter, Chris Parke and Miles Jenner (speaking French), with Ian Clegg as the Aide and interpreter. Similarly, Dawn Boxall took the lead in the tongue-twisting song “Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers”, and carried it off to a T.

Costumes were beautiful and, as far as I could tell, authentic to the period. (Who on earth kept track of the hats!) And they were worn with naturalness, as if they really were the actors’ own clothes; something that cannot always be said of non-contemporary plays. Wardrobe must have climbed a mountain for this production, and greatly contributed to the successful doubling of so many parts. (The cast of 14 seemed more like two or three times that number.) Nick Betteridge, for example, gave a little tour de force as the Sergeant Major, but also played General Haig and three other parts. Likewise, Drummond Abrams served as General Moltke (with his unforgettable line: “...and let the last man brush the Channel with his sleeve”) as well as the German Officer reading out his letter.

About the Marxist premises of the play, I have great reservations. But that’s another story. This was an unforgettable production.

Randolph Morse