Oh What A Lovely War is proof that theatre can change society’s attitudes. When it was first produced, World War 1 had not been studied in great depth, it barely figured in school history lessons, and much of what was written about it preserved a reverential respect for the establishment figures who presided over the slaughter of ten million soldiers. Joan Littlewood’s 1963 production caused a sensation by satirising the generals and their attitudes and by questioning the whole moral basis of the conflict.
Other books and plays have developed the theme, but Oh What A Lovely War remains a fresh and powerful piece. It is worth seeing both in its own right and as a landmark in theatre history, especially in a production as fizzing with imagination and energy as this one. The tone is set as one walks through the makeshift green room and make-up area to the temporary seating, in front of which some of the cast are already on stage, dressed as pierrots and inviting members of the audience to come and join in end-of-the-pier games. The play itself starts with the nationalistic posturing by the countries involved, leading on to the sense of patriotic adventure that brought so many to enlist in the early months and, gradually, the unfolding of the horrors of the next four years.
Much of the impact comes from the comedy that contrasts so strongly with those horrors. The characters such as Sir John French (Leonard White), who should be re-christened Sir John Franglais for the mess he makes of trying to speak French, and Sir Douglas Haig (Heath Alexander), whose deluded strategy is based on a mixture of the grisly arithmetic of casualties and a belief that God cannot let the British lose, are caricatures, so that one laughs at them while despising them. One of the most chilling scenes is the shooting party of profiteers, with their talk of ‘peace scares’.
There are some moments of broader comedy, too, of which ‘Hitchy-koo’ (Emily Attenburrow and Samuel Grayson) and three Irish soldiers straight out of Riverdance are particularly memorable. She may lack physical stature, but as the MC, Lesley Havekost commands the stage, has a nice singing voice and is ever so slightly sinister.
In fact, the standard of singing is excellent throughout, the highlights being ‘Roses of Picardy’ (Dominique Thomas-St. Ville and Sorcha Martin) and ‘I’ll make a man of any one of you’, from which Isobel Thomas Steer gets full value. The musical director is Mark Forkgen, who leads a small band from Kokoro, the BSO’s new music group.
At the curtain call, it is almost a surprise to see how comparatively small the company is, since every one of them plays several different parts, which is a tribute to their versatility – and to their ability to make very quick costume changes. Director Kenneth Robertson asks a lot of them in a production that is full of movement and goes at a cracking pace, but their energy never falters. The various accents are well sustained, too.
Costume, set design and make-up are by students studying those subjects to degree level, and they in no way let down the high standard of the acting. The scaffolding set is particularly striking, with two video screens showing period photos and a third giving the dreadful casualty statistics.
AUB productions are always worth seeing both for themselves and because of the promising talent on show. This one is no exception. It is on until 13 May at 7.30 each evening, with a matinée at 3 on the 12th.