Musical theare's seminal Oh! What a Lovely War is shocking and delightful - see it in Leeds and Wakefield

Oh! What a Lovely War is musical theatre at its best and is on at Leeds Playhouse and Wakefield Theatre RoyalOh! What a Lovely War is musical theatre at its best and is on at Leeds Playhouse and Wakefield Theatre Royal
Oh! What a Lovely War is musical theatre at its best and is on at Leeds Playhouse and Wakefield Theatre Royal
Marking the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s epic anti-war musical, the award-nominated Blackeyed Theatre production of Oh! What a Lovely War brings the full horror of World War One to the stage.

Conceived and developed by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in 1963, Oh! What a Lovely War remains a classic of modern theatre, a fusion of timeless songs, razor-sharp satire and high jinks, offering a joyously scathing account of the First World War.

Whizz bangs exploded, mustard gas floated over muddy, body-strewn trenches as the number of men – in their millions – who died for inches of mud at the battles of Loos, Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme were projected on a screen above the stage.

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It is an element of the play that was both shocking and moving.

I am of the generation that was taught the horrors of the Great War – the war to end all wars – at school. I cried then as we were shown newsreels from the 1914 to 1918 conflict and I cried at the angry, sharp-as-a-bayonet’s-point, dark-humoured production.

The waste of life for so little gain is still unimaginable – and the lessons not learned, heartbreaking.

A group of strolling players presented the action in a series of vignettes – the cynical Lord Kitchener-led recruitment that blinded the country’s innocent youth with patriotic zeal – the stupidity of generals, the bravery of the Tommy – ‘lions led by donkeys’ – conscientious objectors, defectors and the class war still raging on the Home Front – all came in for a barrage of satirical observation.

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It was as though they were going from town to town, re-enacting the horrors from Flanders’ battlefields for residents starved of real news from the trenches.

The seven-strong ensemble performed the macabre, yet poignant, mix of drama and music – including Pack Up Your Troubles, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Roses of Picardy, Keep the Homes Fires Burning, I’ll Make a Man of Everyone of You, Goodbyee, They’ll Never Believe Me and the title song.

Characters rolled in and out of focus as the scenes – connected only by the theme of war –offered opinions of the progress – or not – of the war from a dizzying array of perspectives.

The cast multi-roled and played every musical instrument from keyboards to harmonica.

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With Oh! What a Lovely War you had to keep your wits about you – it is not a linear narrative and there is not one main character to lead you through the morass. It was considered avant-garde when it was first stage and in the hands of Blackeyed Theatre, it had lost none of that freshness and strangeness.

With war raging in various parts of the world, the production is a reminder of how little we have learned, what a short distance we have travelled toward tolerance and acceptance and how fragile is world peace.

Oh! What a Lovely War is on at Leeds Playhouse on Tuesday March 26 and Wednesday March 27 and at Wakefield Theatre Royal on Tuesday April 30 and Wednesday May 1.

Sue Wilkinson

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