Oh What a Lovely War

Oh What a Lovely War (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 11th)

The brutal horror and lasting trauma of war have seldom been better portrayed on stage than in Joan Littlewood’s masterful and radical 1963 musical drama Oh What a Lovely War.

Revived at its original Stratford East venue last year to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, the piece is now touring and with stark reminders of that historical commemoration still fresh in people’s minds it is no surprise that the show has the power to get the audience singing along and leave them in a state of haunted silence in equal measure.

It somehow feels at home in Brighton, as the town provided the setting for Richard Attenborough’s famous film version, but this is no jolly exercise in nostalgia – the anti-war message with blame placed squarely on the shoulders of leaders remains powerful and remarkably contemporary, with a chilling sign-off that the war games still continue today.

Terry Johnson’s slick revival sticks to the format of the pierrot show using music hall songs and others from the era and there’s also some bang up-to-date references as the theatre of war is acted out. However, this is no carbon copy of Joan Littlewood’s daring production – it has freshness and depth of its very own.

Lez Brotherston’s clever multi-purpose set allows an electronic display to be flown in throughout, largely to show the sobering numbers of dead as the war progresses, while a big screen shows recruiting adverts and bleak photos from the front.  Peter White and the band give a period feel to the music, with a jollity that seems carefully at odds with the war games.

It is undeniably dark, but colour and life is ensured thanks to a uniformly enthusiastic company of 12, including Ian Reddington’s down to earth, affable, yet nonetheless sinister MC (whose incomprehensible sergeant major drill routine is a riot and would have delighted its creator, the late Victor Spinetti); Christopher Villiers’ out of touch Haig; and Wendi Peters standing out with her saucy  recruiting song I’ll Make a Man of You – with likely male members of the audience being handed  a shilling – and getting everyone to sing along to the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts.

As in all such ensemble shows it is unfair to single out particular performances, as it is the very nature of the play for everyone to be able to work together well, with each having at least one moment in the spotlight and this is the perfect example of each performer having a vital contribution, whether it be in characterisations, comic skits, dance, drama or songs. So the fullest of credit to Alice Bailey Johnson, Marcus Ellard, Alex Giannini, Richard Glaves, Lauren Hood, Matthew Malthouse,  William Oxborrow, Mark Prendergast, and Bleu Woodward.

With a focus on the Christmas Truce of 1914 in so many ways last year – from carol services to Christmas TV commercials – the relevant scene here was played simply and with poignancy as German troops sang a haunting Stille Nacht to be met by the rowdier British response of Christmas Day in the Cookhouse. The scene said more about the desire for peace than thousands of pounds in advertising revenue ever could.  

Age has not withered or wearied Oh What a Lovely War – and with this Theatre Royal Stratford East revival there is evidence that it will continue to shock, inspire, entertain, educate and challenge for a long time yet.