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Oh What a Lovely War at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Oh What A Lovely War was the brainchild of the legendary theatre maker Joan Littlewood along with her partner Gerry Raffles and the show’s original cast. It premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East in March 1963 and was a resounding success, nominated for numerous awards both here and on Broadway. In 1969 Richard Attenborough directed the film which was also an enormous success.

Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.
Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.

Now sixty years after it was first produced, Blackeyed Theatre in association with South Hill Park have revived it at Southwark Playhouse and it couldn’t be timelier. Set in a rundown circus tent, the six performers who all play various characters, are dressed as Pierrots in a Comedia dell’arte style as they were in Littlewood’s original production as they play out the horrendous story of World War I – the “war to end all wars” where millions died in a futile war and whilst Oh What A Lovely War is told as a farce, the war certainly wasn’t.

Using popular songs of the time such as “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”, “Goodbye-ee”, “Roses Of Picardy” and “Keep The Home Fires Burning” amongst many others, Oh What A Lovely War, could be called the first jukebox musical. The songs drive the narrative and are perfectly chosen to illustrate what’s going on at a specific time during the four years of the war. To reinforce the horrific goings on at the Western Front, facts appear as surtitles showing how many millions died for minor gains in territory. Oh What A Lovely War also illustrates the incompetency of the generals and politicians who directed the battles and sent ordinary soldiers to death and mutilation – the show isn’t performed as a farce without reason.

What makes this production a triumph, apart from the wonderful material, is the performances of the six-strong cast who not only portray a number of roles but also play an array of various instruments, changing from one to another seamlessly. This is a real ensemble that meshes wonderfully together as they swap costumes, instruments and personas singing wonderfully too. The six are Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma and Euan Wilson a group of young, recently graduated performers who give the piece great energy and brio. As good as they all are (and they are all excellent) special mention should go to Robin Williams lookalike Curley whose expressive face and mannerisms are a joy to behold – his Sergeant Major sketch is a highlight.

Nicky Allpress directs with a firm grip on what’s needed to make a difficult subject both funny and poignant and she’s aided and abetted by Movement Director Adam Haigh who makes even the bringing on of props and costumes somewhat balletic. Whist Musical Director Ellie Verkerk doesn’t appear, her use of all acoustic instruments is a joy. Also the singers don’t have head microphones so although the occasional lyric is lost behind a trumpet or trombone, listening to the non-amplified singing and playing is literally music to the ears.

This production of Oh What A Lovely War couldn’t have come at a more apt time. With two horrendous wars going on at the moment, where politicians and generals are causing mayhem and ordinary people are suffering horrendous depravation and dying unnecessarily, Oh What A Lovely War with six brilliant performers performing in Pierrot costumes shows that we’ve learned very little since the war to end all wars. As Sondheim wrote about sending in the clowns – “Don’t bother they’re here”.

5 Star Rating

Review by Alan Fitter

Roll up, Roll up! And take your seat for the ever-popular ‘War Game’!

A cornerstone of modern musical theatre and one of the very greatest stage satires, Oh What A Lovely War is an extraordinary theatrical journey bringing to life the folly, farce and tragedy of the First World War.

Wildly satirical, visually stunning and deeply moving, it’s the musical that revolutionised modern theatre; an exhilarating, no-holds-barred assault on the military incompetence and inconceivable disregard for human life the First World War has come to represent.

Packed with timeless songs, razor-sharp satire and high jinks, Oh What A Lovely War is a hilarious, heart-breaking snapshot of life for those caught in the crossfire of conflict, a unanimous voice from the trenches and a timely warning from the theatre of war itself. Now, more than ever, it holds a mirror up to the world and speaks to us all.

21 NOV – 9 DEC 2023

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