More than half a century on from its debut this satire of war still has power to shock – and more unnervingly, entertain.
Developed out of a radio show to become a “musical entertainment” by Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles in 1963, it became more well-known as Richard Attenborough’s directorial film debut in 1969, with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and Susannah York.
This new touring production by Blackeyed Theatre at Norwich Theatre Playhouse has a much more condensed cast, with six actor-musicians delivering a tight ensemble piece directed by Nicky Allpress.
Victoria Spearing and Naomi Gibbs’ design falls somewhere between the original’s use of French clown suits and the film version’s more literal use of military uniform, with a clever set that flexes between circus and musical hall, the First World War trenches, and several locations inbetween.
The multi-instrumentalist cast – Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma, and Euan Wilson – flip between dialogue, music, and song with consummate ease, by turns representing the apparently uncaring upper echelons of the military and society, and the downtrodden but resilient and sardonic soldier class. It’s an impressive show.
The production resurrects several songs that have faded from public consciousness such as Keep The Home Fires Burning, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, I’ll Make a Man of You, They Were Only Playing Leapfrog, and If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum. The contrast of their lyrical sarcasm with the brutal waste of war remains a powerful one. Even with war once again in Europe, seeing figures of millions dead projected on to a screen still feels unbelievable.
The narrative is a little fractious and although broadly chronological the story is at times a little hard to follow for those not familiar with the passage of the Great War, and the play ends without a resolution – although perhaps in that way it best represents the many lives lost.
It feels a little cartoonish now in its simplistic portrayal of the conduct of war, but instead presents a fascinating record of the cultural reaction to such unprocessable circumstances: how dark humour provides a crutch, how music transcends, and how little – despite so much process – that we really change.
- Oh What A Lovely War continues at Norwich Theatre Playhouse until September 27 2023; the tour also includes Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, September 28-30.