Robert Tanitch reviews Oh What A Lovely War at Theatre Royal, Stratford East
The war to end all wars lasted from October 14 to March 1918 an by the time it ended ten million were dead, twenty one million were wounded and seven million were missing. The men fought like lions but they were lead by donkeys.
Oh What A lovely War, one of the great theatrical successes of the 1960’s, offering “songs, battles and some jokes”, was created by Joan Littlewood, Charles Hilton, Gerry Raffles and members of the original cast at Stratford East in 1963 through improvisation.
Terry Johnson’s timely revival is in the same vein as the original production and is a fitting commemoration of the Great War and, simultaneously, a tribute to Joan Littlewood whose centenary it also is.
The show looks at the war from the point of view of the men in the trenches. Behind the actors on screens are projected familiar recruiting posters, photographs and newsreels of the troops in the front line. Most devastating are the constant recordings of the appalling fatalities, battle by battle, on a dot matrix news panel. Millions of lives lost for a few yards.
An outstanding example of anti-war propaganda, it still has an enormous emotional impact. The bitterest satire is reserved for the millionaire profiteers, the Church and Field Marshal Earl Haig, commander-in-chief, who is not squeamish about using the men as cannon fodder, confident that Britain will eventually win, because they have more men to lose than the Germans.
The bayonet drill-sergeant’s gibberish on the parade ground is one of the great music hall comedy routines. The most moving scene is the fraternisation between the British and German soldiers in No Man’s Land at Christmas. The songs, too, will break your heart.
Oh What A lovely War is essential viewing for the whole family.
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