Oh What a Lovely War @ Richmond Theatre, Richmond

directed by
Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman

Despite programme notes that make reference to Obama and Afghanistan, Northern Stage’s revival of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 Theatre Workshop production, directed by Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman, sticks very close to the spirit of the original and allows the audience to draw their own contemporary parallels. Littlewood was notoriously strict about this devised piece and allowed little variation from her vision.

The Northern Stage production retains the same basic blend of vaudeville humour and war photos but does add a few small, inventive touches of its own. A red rolling news bar, not dissimilar to that on BBC News 24, keeps count of the number of dead and there are a few modern musical references peppered throughout.

Oh What a Lovely War is a history of the First World War told through the songs of day. Its chaotic and anarchic, blending elements of music hall, skits, songs and patter, with stark imagery of war. The stage is bare expect for an array of backstage clutter ladders and planks of wood which are made to double as props, to become trench walls, weapons, crutches. The cast play all the instruments and drums are made to replicate the crack of gunfire, the detonation of distant, deadly whizz bangs.

The songs themselves tell the story. At the start of the war they are full of gung ho spirit, cajoling all able bodied young men to do their duty to their country, but as the reality of warfare kicks in and the death toll escalates, the tone of the songs soon becomes more cynical and weary. Songs like I Don’t Want to be a Soldier are full of fear and longing for home (I don’t want a bayonet in the belly; I don’t want my bollocks shot away). There is also the sense of injustice, of the people making the decisions not really grasping the full horror of the trenches. This is epitomized by Joe Soaps Army, sung to the tune of Onwards Christian Soldiers, which features an old commander who thinks he’s very brave / But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave. In I Want to Go Home, the lyrics form a heartbreaking plea: Oh my, I don’t want to die/ I want to go home.

In between the songs there are small sketches featuring significant figures from the period: Field Marshal Haig, the Butcher of the Somme, and Emmeline Pankhurst, who toned down her calls for women’s suffrage in order to focus on the war. The reenactment of the famous incident in which German and British troops swapped Christmas gifts in No Mans Land remains a potent and eloquent moment, saying so much about the absurdity of combat, and the sight of a chorus line of twitching, shell-shocked soldiers still has the power to shock.

The cast attain a good balance between a broad vaudevillian style and something more nuanced and affecting. There are, however, some audibility issues and some of the song lyrics get swallowed up. Fortunately this doesn’t have too much of an impact on what is still a resonant and moving piece of theatre.

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