Thursday, 13 March 2014

'Oh What A Lovely War' at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Stratford East is presenting a revival of 'Oh What A Lovely War' 51 years after it was workshopped and performed on that very stage and 100 years after the start of World War I, the subject of the musical. I've never managed to watch the film all the way through but I saw a different revival four years ago at Richmond and that made me want to see this version at its birthplace.

It's a story about the First World War from the events that caused countries to declare war on each other to the end with a photo of six British Tommys with metal cups of tea in a trench as war is finally over. We see the snobbery of those in power around the globe one-upping each other and the losers are always the ordinary working man. One scene is about war-mongers from different nations selling arms to each other irrespective of their own nationalities - money doesn't care. It may be 50 years old but it's also timeless.

In many respects it followed the expected pattern of the cast in pierot costumes (because Joan Littlewood hated khaki and uniforms), images of the war projected on a screen at the back of the stage and a 'ticker tape' display giving us the headlines of how many died at Ypres and other battles for no gain.

Everyone in the cast came on playing different roles, often with a coat or boots over their pierot costume to reflect who they were meant to be, from an aristocratic 'brave Belgium' to an East End Tommy. The women get the most costume changes when they play music hall singers encouraging women to shame their menfolk into signing up for the army or sing a tongue twister about Susie sewing shirts for the army (I couldn't join in with that one).

Despite the pierot costumes this is a deeply serious play wrapped within a musical comedy format. The first half is largely scene-setting with most of the horror of war being shown in the second half - we've been drawn in by that time. The horror is personified by General Haig (of the whisky y'know, trade) who is seen to intrigue his way to the head of the war office to try out his ridiculous ideas of how to win the war by sheer numbers - throw more at the enemy and we will win eventually. Um, no. In one awful scene we see him praying to God to win the next offensive before the Americans join the war. It's all about him.

The star of the show for me was Caroline Quentin as lead lady, a role originally played by a young Barbara Windsor. I've seen Caroline lots on telly but never before on the stage and she was a delight, drawing the spotlight when she was up-front and blending into the crowd at the back when appropriate. She brought a welcome lift after some of the more harrowing scenes and did it with ease. I'd like to see her on the stage more often.

One of the final songs was about how the Tommy's didn't talk about their experiences when they returned home. And that's true. My Granda was 17 when the war started and he returned home at the age of 21 leaving his left arm in France. He never spoke to his children about the war or to me when I visited him in the '80s and he'd take me to his local pub for the obligatory pint or two. The war was something not to be shared or talked about, even so many years afterwards.

I can't help but feel that 'Oh What A Lovely War' is more of a statement than a piece of theatre but is that wrong? It's a powerful message that is still relevant today. If you're going to declare war anywhere then please watch this musical first. You might change your mind.

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