Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Oh What a Lovely War

Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum
08 September 2017 to 30 September 2017

I like Oh What a Lovely War a lot, and since it’s almost a classic now, and we’re 100 years on from the worst killing fields of the Great War, there was every reason for Kevin Shaw and Oldham Coliseum to put it on.

It's worth pondering that we’re 54 years now from its premiere, and that first night was only 45 years on from the end of the war it describes, when many of the men who fought were still alive and you would think memories were clear. But the tacit resolve never to talk about it, on the part of those who survived – movingly caught in the final chorus of ‘They’ll never believe us’ – still held and gave the show a shock value for their grandchildren’s generation that it can never have again.

Staging it as an actor-musician show on the Watermill Theatre pattern, where everyone plays instruments to accompany the songs as well as acting and singing their own roles, is not a new idea. Bolton did that a few years ago (with Matthew Kelly memorable as Haig), and with the right people it can be very effective. This time, with 10 performers doing everything, it is stretching the concept to its limit. Girls taking soldiers’ roles jars a bit, despite one’s zeal to be gender-blind and although it’s in keeping with the seaside Pierrot show format of the original, so maybe I’m not old-fashioned enough. But they have 10 very talented people here, several with excellent form either in this very show or in others employing their multitudes of talents.

Kevin Shaw’s production (with a very straightforward setting by Foxton, but again one that fits the concept) sticks to the gentle agit-prop method Joan Littlewood used in her Stratford East creation: songs-and-sketches apparently recreating events of the war as it was experienced, on both sides of the class divide, with magic lantern slides silently putting the record straight with facts and figures – the obscenely mounting death toll in particular. The fact that class-ridden Britain ever finished up on the ‘winning’ side without a revolution is a marvel that comes over powerfully, now that we’ve got used to the sanitized images of Downton Abbey and suchlike – in 1963 it might have been in living memory but at least one knew that post-1945 Labour governments had done something about it.

This is a genuine ensemble triumph, and I would rate the quality of the choral singing as among the best I’ve ever heard on a theatre stage, especially in acappella numbers like ‘When this lousy war is over’ (Howard Gray is musical director). Singling out individuals seems invidious, but all three girls do a tremendous job – Barbara Hockaday and Lauryn Redding both expert and experienced in this sort of caper, and Isobel Bates a relative newcomer, with more Mountview Academy credits in her list than anything else but I’m sure on the way to great things.

Reviewer: Robert Beale


Comment by Alan Hulme

I saw a preview performance, kindly allowed because I was going on holiday and would miss the official first night. And it was already a pretty polished show, with perhaps a little too much knock-about comedy but with a cast working as a well-drilled ensemble.

The piece itself still makes a powerful impact, the cruel juxtaposition of the end of the pier ethos with the killing fields and trenches was an inspired idea back in the 1960s and remains so now.

Foxton’s simple music hall setting works well; Jason Taylor’s lighting delivers several punches, as does Lorna Munden’s sound design, and Kevin Shaw ensures it’s pacey and clear throughout.

I do however miss the newsflow signage, which in previous productions spelled out the horrifying casualty figures in moving lights above the stage action, the screen employed here hasn’t anything like the same impact. Cost I suppose but a pity the budget couldn’t have been stretched.

Comment by Paul Genty

I'll admit that, unlike Bob, this was never a show I liked very much: very Sixties, very deliberately "alternative" for its day, and in the intervening years its end-of-the-pier pierrot theme has diminished so much you would find it hard to find anyone under 50 who has any idea who these people in pom-pom costumes are supposed to be.

In the first 30 minutes of this production it seemed my prejudices might be confirmed, for the comedy was a little too forced, the timing a little off and the acting a bit too knockabout.

But as the production and cast settled down, the show matured into a remarkably entertaining production: the Coliseum seems to be making a habit of opening new seasons with a bang. Here, of course, that's a pretty literal point.

Like Alan, I thought the rising toll of the dead could be a little more dramatically presented than by the magic lantern slides, but like Bob I thought the singing, and the girls, and most of the male cast, were excellent. Ultimately a very strong show.

Comment by David Chadderton

I agree with my colleagues that the show is musically impressive, both vocally and instrumentally, despite some very muffled vocals through the PA.

But that's about as far as it went for me. I think Bob perhaps hits the nail on the head when he describes it as "gentle agit-prop"; I doubt Joan Littlewood has ever been described as "gentle", and the same applies to her work. This was a savage attack, heavily influenced by Brecht, on the established view of the First World War. While we can't possibly recreate the shock it would have created in 1963 now the views it expresses are well-known and widely accepted (except by Michael Gove), when there is too little contrast between the comic and the serious elements, it risks becoming a nostalgic singalong with very little to say.

For me, the serious element didn't start to work until Haig appeared in act 2, a wonderfully low-key performance from Jeffrey Harmer bringing home his normalisation of such statements as, "in the end they will have five thousand men left and we will have ten thousand and we shall have won."

The problem with the newspanel messages that Alan mentions is not so much how they are displayed but how they are given such low prominence by the production. Rather than stopping the action to draw attention to the horrific statistics they casually communicate, the cast sing and dance in front of them, making them easy to ignore.

There is still some shocking information that comes across from the script, but in a production that's more panto than pierrot there is a lot more that doesn't.