Joan Littlewood’s musical had mixed reviews when it was first performed in 1963 – some loved it, but others felt that it was a cartoonish, cruel and unfair portrayal of the First World War. While I suspect that some may echo these feelings, even decades later, current events make 2017 a very interesting time to revive the show. Thanks to Brexit, national identity, patriotism and political leadership are under extremely close scrutiny. Having never seen the show, I was concerned that a musical full of nostalgic wartime songs would attempt to put rose-tinted glasses on its audience, and tap into one of the feelings that drove the referendum vote.
Boy, how wrong I was.
This Oldham Coliseum production of Oh What a Lovely War sees a cast of ten performers putting on a music hall-style variety show, dressed in blue and white clown costumes (thankfully, without the make up) and playing the music live onstage. Through short scenes, songs and snippets of period music performed directly to the audience – there’s no fourth wall here – they take the audience on a whistlestop tour through World War I.
The show is built on the sharp, shocking juxtaposition of cheery, familiar songs (‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag,’ ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ etc) and comic scenes, with battle photographs and grim statistics that are projected on a screen during the show: during World War 1, 10 million men died. 7 million missing. These facts are never acknowledged by the cast, but hang over the stage as a stark reminder of the truth.
The ten-strong cast have the chance to exhibit their many talents – playing various instruments, dancing, juggling, singing (the performance of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ from Isobel Bates is particularly moving) and of course comic timing.
As the show and the war progress, the casualties mount and the comedy becomes darker. Light-hearted bits – the drill scene with the shouty army captain, or the tongue-twisting singalong about Sister Susie – are replaced by a depiction of the Christmas truce, complete with songs and presents, and French soldiers as ‘lambs to the slaughter,’ bleating horrifically as they follow their sergeant into gunfire. Upper classes wrangle for influence; international profiteers laugh over German soldiers wounded by German barbed wire; Field Marshal Haig shows no remorse for the men lost as a result of his actions. These biting, openly anti-war scenes build to the poignant final song ‘And When They Ask Us.’ There is no mention of victory or of peace.
I can only imagine how audiences felt when they watched Oh What a Lovely War’s first incarnation in the 60s, but I left the theatre feeling tearful, sick and angry – and with ‘they were only playing leapfrog’ going round in my head. I feel like that says it all, really.
This production is on at Oldham Coliseum until 30 September so get there if you can!