Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
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