Opening on the day of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, this production is an ambitious and forceful look at the absurdities of war. And it feels all the more relevant given the ongoing horrors in Gaza and Syria we are currently faced with every day.
The piece originally came into being through the great Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop, although she was reluctant initially, as she detested the war, military uniforms and everything they stood for.
The chorus-like Pierrot figures in this production surely reference her idea of “soft, fluffy entertainment”, providing an ironic counterpoint to the more military costumes and characters. The subject matter is huge and, in a sense, too awful to really comprehend. But comedy, satire and irony are well placed to help us examine these horrors.
There were some great visual moments; the moustachioed women on hobby horses; the cars carrying important figures made of a wheel or two and a vintage car horn. Then there were large musical numbers, often harking back to music hall traditions or authentic war songs, with the cast moving from the stage to the auditorium deftly accompanied by the company’s band. The women of the cast carried many good numbers, from ‘I’ll Make A Man of You’ to the title number (moustachioed again) – a good reminder of the fact many women were left at home to continue everything. The power machinations of the rich upper classes were examined with a telling scene set at a grouse shoot, acted by the younger members of the company which also gave it extra bite, as well as the now iconic Christmas Truce where soldiers from opposing sides came briefly together one Christmas Eve. The second half floundered a little in places, as it had so much ground to cover; regular announcements of the appalling losses; the suffragettes; the nurses; Haig being an insufferable religious maniac; mustard gas, (including the problem of gassing our own troops); more intrigue of the rich and powerful politicians at a ball, all punctuated with songs and comedic ‘Tommy’ moments.
The final projected information of the fact that, since 1918, British forces have consistently been involved in a conflict somewhere in the world was a shocking thought. It would be a fine thing to think that, sometime in a peaceful future for humankind, we could look at works like this as antique curios, but as this work points out, wars are not usually initiated by individuals, but rather by governments. As the great Edwin Starr said “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing”.
Wiltshire TimesStella Taylor
This co-production of Joan Littlewood’s musical entertainment, created by the Stage 65 Youth Theatre and Musical Theatre Salisbury, offers thought-provoking theatre.
From the Pierrots’ frolics to the trenches: some of the cast of Oh What A Lovely War
An excellent two-tier set incorporates two screens on which battlefield scenes are complemented by grim statistics from the First World War. The 58-strong cast, who include a troupe of pierrots, depict the changing moods of the period, as the cheery optimism of new recruits gives way to despair as they witness the slaughter of so many comrades.
The opening sequence of the show, as the Last Post is sounded, highlights wreath-laying at the base of a large, central wall which bears the names of Wiltshire’s Fallen. Subsequently the wall opens, to reveal action.
The show finds no excuse for the appalling carnage wrought by machine guns and poison gas, and repeats the claim that soldiers fight like lions but are led by donkeys. As casualties escalate to unimaginable levels, and newly conscripted troops are brought in, there is official assurance that “What they lack in training, they will make up in gallantry.”
There are many memorable moments in this show, with its keen satirical edge emphasised by bizarre costume and make-up. There is a fatal cavalry charge, on hobby horses; the brilliant portrayal of an almost incomprehensible Sergeant Major and a very moving exchange of Christmas greetings and gifts between British and German troops, whose fraternisation was roundly condemned by their superiors.
On the Home Front, there is an Officers’ Ball, and American guests grouse-shooting in Scotland – as young actors flap in panic, scattering feathers in the aisles. This year, amid so many commemorations of the start of the First World War, it is salutary to reflect on the many subsequent conflicts that have occurred annually since 1914. These were flashed on to the screen, with a note that if UK troops leave Afghanistan later this year, 2015 may be the first year in which our Armed Forces have been at peace.
Members of the Youth Theatre perform well, alongside their adult mentors, from whom they can learn valuable ways to improve their own stagecraft. There are many splendid choral and solo numbers, from Keep The Home Fires Burning to The Bells of Hell, in which little demons cavort wildly.
The Fine Times Recorder
JOAN Littlewood’s extraordinary musical satire Oh What a Lovely War is possibly the most effective anti-war show ever devised, accessible to all ages and attitudes and shining the searchlight from all angles on the reality of conflicts.
In this Great War anniversary year, productions of the show – first performed by Theatre Workshop in East London in the early 60s – are frequent, and in Salisbury the noted Stage ‘65 have joined for the first time with Musical Theatre Salisbury for a co-production, directed by Mark Powell, designed by Steve Howell and choreographed by Maggie Rawlinson with Liz Weager in charge of the music and the orchestra.
It has been a vast undertaking, with a cast of 55 whose ages range over six decades.
The original idea was that a troupe of pierrot players enact the First World War, changing hats and props to bring to life generals and footsoldiers, arms dealers, politicians, wives, mothers and good time girls.
The soldiers are English and German and Italian and French and Belgian. Their commanders battle not at The Front but with languages they are too proud to get translated.
There are moments of high comedy and heartbreaking poignancy in this extraordinary show, the production of which requires military precision and constant pace.
In the Salisbury production there are five pierrots, whose antics are performed on a moving thrust platform centre stage. No-one is credited with any individual characterisation, but there are memorable moments from the sergeant major and his green volunteer troop and the five pierrots, as well as the German carol singer.