FringeReview UK 2023
Oh What a Lovely War
Blackeyed Theatre in association with South Hill Park Productions
Festival: FringeReview UK
Musically directed by Ellie Verkerk the six-strong cast play instruments throughout. They’re a phenomenal team, singing beautifully a capella or in solo. Though they don’t (purposefully) replicate the perfect ardent tenors of the 1969 film, they sing and – uniquely – play with a mesmerising versatility.
But in this two-hours-twenty-five show (it ran a bit longer on this occasion) so much is packed so much artistry displayed that we’re mostly entertained, thrilled, numbed, occasionally stupefied and ultimately moved in an immersive war-as-vaudeville that luckily with those surtitles doesn’t let us for one moment let us think that the jollity’s not being subverted.
With six young actors mostly fresh out of drama school absolutely at the top of their first game, we’re treated to acting both hungry to prove and yet touched by the world they’ve entered. This is an outstanding production.
Directed by Nicky Allpress, MUSICAL DIRECTOR Ellie Verkerk, MOVEMENT DIRECTOR Adam Haigh ORCHESTRATOR Tom Neill SET DESIGNER Victoria Spearing COSTUME DESIGNER Naomi Gibbs, LIGHTING DESIGNER Alan Valentine, PRODUCER Adrian McDougall
Till December 9th
Whilst two wars are raging, Blackeyed Theatre have revived the war-to-end-war yet again. First seen in 2008 this production of Joan Littlewood’s and Charles Chiltern’s perennial ‘Entertainment’ Oh What a Lovely War turns 15 and the show itself 60 this year. Directed by Nicky Allpress it arrives at Southwark Playhouse (Borough) till December 9th.
With a six-strong cast this isn’t the kind of large-scale version seen for instance in a 2014 tour, but returns to Joan Littlewood’s aesthetics and production values of Theatre Workshop. They’re never offstage, are inset and playing, twirling and strumming even through the interval.
From an original 1962 Armistice BBC broadcast with Charles Chilton’s compilations of 32 songs with threaded commentary, Littlewood and partner Gerry Raffles with the original company fashioned a post-Brechtian parable: tightly organised with (here) surtitles flashing up the original stats at key points. They’re discreet but clear. Blackeyed have produced three Brecht plays in their 19 years and it’s in their DNA.
Musically directed by Ellie Verkerk the six-strong cast play instruments throughout (the ad-hoc ensembles deftly woven by orchestrator Tom Neill), even multiple ones – with Chioma Uma on piano and violin, Tom Crabtree making a superb theatrical debut on multiple brass. Throughout too the cast revert effortlessly to French (Christopher Arkeston, Crabtree) or German (Euan Wilson, also on piano, Harry Curley et al).
Curley graduated in 2022 and Alice E Mayer in 2021, debuting in Blackeyed’s Frankenstein last year and touring in a Welsh bi-lingual production. They’re a phenomenal team, singing beautifully a capella or in solo. Though they don’t (purposefully) replicate the perfect ardent tenors of the 1969 film, they sing and – uniquely – play with a mesmerising versatility. And of course Adam Haigh’s movement throughout a tight set lends an illusion of a static war as music hall: which is how it starts with ‘Rowing’ a pre-war idyll.
Victoria Spearing’s homespun-looking backcloth serving as projection for many images and drape to change behind, it’s surrounded by wooden frame that doubles (above) as an occasional trench parapet – though most of the action takes place down below. Duck for sniper-fire and whizz-bangs. Alan Valentine’s lighting is deft, sometimes spectral, drizzling a hopeless trench dawn.
The cast frantically change hats and coats, occasionally onstage (the imperious Haig, Arkeston) where Naomi Gibbs’ costumes keeps to the original harlequin design of white-faced and Watteau/Picasso pirouetting masked by occasional bits of khaki.
This doesn’t of course just feature the trenches but the use of sex and ostracization in wartime recruitment: Mayer memorable in ‘I’ll Make a Man of You’ for enlisting. But there’s vignettes in a twist of scarves for Meyer, Uma and Crabtree to turn the Home Front into lists of missing and another munitions’ “girl blown to bits”.
50 were killed in the February 1917 Newcastle explosion through managerial incompetence. But many munitions women were working-class suffragettes who’d blown up empty houses and a dock in 1914. You bet, with new-honed explosives expertise and fear of revolution, women got the partial vote by 1918! It wasn’t through breaking windows.
Divided into The War Game Parts One and Two Theatre Workshop don’t hesitate to deploy Brechtian commentary on (as art two shows) the then-neutral US with Switzerland and other manufacturers making millions – several thousand US citizens became millionaires during this war – suggesting the US had to enter the war to protect their betting millions on the winning side. The US effect even spreads to Field Marshall Haig who wanted the Battles of Arras (April 9th 1917) and Passchendaele (31st July 1917) where thousands drowned, to win him the war before the US could make a difference.
There’s plenty of fruitless allied rivalry and British monolingual arogance (Crabtree a hapless Belgian general) where Haig refuses to put himself under French direction (he did offer, eventually, in 1918).
This is above all though a quasi-musical ‘entertainment’ and is at times heart-stoppingly poignant. The two most affecting occur in the more densely-populated (21 songs) second half ‘When This Lousy War is Over’ and ‘And When They Ask Us’ which even when you recall them, are frankly overwhelming.
There’s virtuosic comic number too, with astonishingly-fine part-singing in for instance ‘The Bells of Hell’ or more knockabout ‘They Were Only Playing Leapfrog’ (‘when one staff officer jumped over another staff officer’s back’ with po-faced innuendo). There’s poignant ensemble with two singing ‘Hellige Nacht’ as the British in Christmas 1914 respond with ‘Christmas Day in the Cookhouse’ concluding 1914 with affirmations of friendship never allowed again.
But uniquely here Theatre Workshop’s aesthetic is revived when the audience joins in with the tongue-twisting ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts’ towards the end. It also proves how beautifully-placed each song is, each variation in this almost stupefyingly long song-list – sometimes snatches. Here when even the audience’s rapt attention might just fade for a moment, is a way to enliven: so the energy’s up for the last three numbers.
There’s been attempts to rehabilitate Haig before and since, but in 1962, after Alan Clark’s 1961 Lions Led by Donkeys the stock of generals remained at an all-time low till revisionists in the 1980s. Otherwise people would continuously dislike wars. Though Haig learned slowly in 1918, he sacked General Rawlinson (who’d warned where the March 1918 Push would occur) to avoid the sack himself: “or it’d be me, so I thought it had better be him”.
And credit for the August 8th 1918 Push lies with General Monash, who being both Australian and Jewish, isn’t celebrated here as is he is in Oz. Rupert Murdoch’s father – newspaper tyro Richard – famously tried to have him removed by the Colonial Menzies government because he was Jewish. That might have set the war back but sanity prevailed: Monash is celebrated and it’s a reason anti-Semitism is less prevalent in Australia.
The balance should lie with World War One career officer and military historian Basil Liddell-Hart, who resigned from the BBC’s 1963 Great War series in protest at ‘balanced’ defence of Haig. He was there and wrote the dispatches. In Littlewood’s and Raffles’ characterisation, Haig, here in Arkeston’s jaunty hands, puffs across for what he was deemed at the time by (opportunistic but not inaccurate) Lloyd-George who appointed him: “intellectually and temperamentally” unfit.
Haig and others are guyed here. Despised for being “in trade” Haig was royally-connected through his wife with one vignette swirling the dance of politics, as generals dance with dresses, who’s in who’s out, with General Henry Wilson (Curley) cutting a forlorn truthful charmless figure. Littlewood’s satire is again evoked with minimal resources all the more telling for being twirled in a twist of cotton.
There are omissions. Whilst the Newcastle explosion wasn’t much-recalled at the time, the British Etaples as well as French mutinies of 1917 go unreported (more mutinies just post-war combined with police strikes in 1918-19 caused a crisis hastily covered up).
Here we get a sketch of threatened mutiny soon stopped. Just as we get one of the newbie Royal Irish Fusiliers too-eagerly advancing and being shelled to oblivion by British artillery (blue on blue, blow on blow). When each tries to return to alert their comrades, they’re shot. The abiding memory though, is the sheer misery, suffering and torture of trench living turned to black comedy. The German leg proppg a parapet a staff officer wants removed.
(Personally I remember one soldier Dr Jack Hartsilver telling me he drew fresh water from under a French helmet for months, till the helmet slipped and revealed a bearded Frenchman.)
But in this two-hours-twenty-five show (it ran a bit longer on this occasion) so much is packed so much artistry displayed that we’re mostly entertained, thrilled, numbed, occasionally stupefied and ultimately moved in an immersive war-as-vaudeville that luckily with those surtitles doesn’t let us for one moment let us think that the jollity’s not being subverted. By using propaganda tools against themselves, Littlewood and her team posit stark warnings against misreporting by officially-sanctioned and state media machines. The effect on the audience was rapturous.
We’re still uplifted, and plunged into loss: despite the war lessons, the numbers killed (we know those mostly, like the near 60,000 – in fact over 57,000 – casualties on the Somme’s first day). With six young actors mostly fresh out of drama school absolutely at the top of their first game, we’re treated to acting both hungry to prove and yet touched by the world they’ve entered. This is an outstanding production.