This production of 'Oh What a Lovely War' returns to Stratford from Jan 29 2015 ahead of a UK tour.
Before there was punk rock, there was Joan Littlewood: 100 years ago, London’s most iconoclastic theatremaker was born, and 50 years later she devised ‘Oh What A Lovely War’, the smash anti-authoritarian ‘musical entertainment’ that did much to popularise the view that World War I was a really, really bad idea.
It premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and to mark the triple anniversary of the play, its creator and the war itself, ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ is going back into the trenches.
There are problems with reverentially restaging irreverent work. Terry Johnson’s production is awash with mischievous energy, but despite the best efforts of Michael Gove – cheekily referenced at the start – the show’s ironic vaudevillian skits and songs were written for a different time and now preach to the converted. The first half feels predicated on the shock factor of pointing out the pointlessness of the conflict – an outrage in 1963, something that's taught in schools now.
The second half, though, is angrier, weightier and transcendent of the original context. The scene where a group of German, American and British businessmen gather at a Scottish estate to discuss how much money they’re making out of the war smacks home like a howitzer, as do the macabre trench sequences and Ian Bartholomew’s horribly unfeeling Field Marshal Haig. And Johnson’s innovations come into their own: horrendous photographs from the trenches contextualise a conflict that has passed from living memory, and an electronic ticker tape that relays the almost unbelievable casualties is like a bayonet to the guts.
A fine, feisty ensemble – which includes Caroline Quentin and Shaun Prendergast – set about matters with invigorating pizzazz. If we’ll never really appreciate the impact this thing had in ’63, its presence in the twenty-first century is justified, as a cracking entertainment and an almighty warning.