Oh What A Lovely War

Date 14th November 2014
Society Winchester Musicals & Opera Society
Venue Theatre Royal
Type of Production Variety
Director Suzanne Hall
Musical Director Peter Theobald
Choreographer Suzanne Hall


Author: Stuart Ardern

The show really started in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, where members of the cast, in costume and carrying large props, negotiated their way through the gathering crowd.  This was part of director Suzanne Hall’s vision of the production as that of a touring company in the Music Hall tradition.  This was entirely appropriate for the structure of Oh What A Lovely War, which is really a themed variety show.  Nevertheless, it’s not often one is greeted outside the box office by someone carrying a lamp post.

The set design was appropriately simple: most of the stage occupied by a raked raised area, with, effectively, an apron stage at the front and aisles at either side, down which the cast made their entrances and exits, frequently marching.  The downstage corners of the raised area had slots into which the large props were inserted for the rapid creation of a temporary set - so the lamp post for a street corner, or two posts and a cord for back-yard washing line.  Small pieces of furniture - mostly stools and the occasional artificial leg - were carried on and off by the cast and used to create different locations.  Costumes were largely generic, with tunics, hats and the like donned to give indications of character in some of the scenes.

The result was a very slick production, moving from one song or sketch to the next at tremendous pace and imparting a coherence to the whole which can be lacking from the show.  (I have said before that the weakness of Oh What A Lovely War is in its roots as a piece of devised theatre;  it brings in multiple perspectives but lacks a controlling mind.  In this case we had a directorial vision imparting the unity.)

Whilst there are occasionally specific roles (Peter Barber playing Kaiser Wilhelm, Adrian Hickford as General Haig), it was an ensemble piece, with groups forming and dissolving as the show progressed.  The singing was lovely.  With a group of British soldiers in a trench on the apron stage, we heard the voices of their German counterparts from offstage, singing Stille Nacht - a haunting moment.  Then there was the church parade, with most of the cast on stage for the military parodies of hymns, all beautifully harmonised.  The choreography was good and varied - at one point Peter Theobald and the band played what sounded like a Marvin Hamlisch arrangement for a ragtime dance; later, the grave digging party singing The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling morphed into lively morris dancers.

As always, amidst all the ironic humour, there is a dreadful, serious core to the show, with the statistics of the battles being projected onto the back of the stage throughout.  From a previous production, I came away with an abiding image of the shooting party - a leisured discussion amongst the captains of industry who were profiteering from the war by selling munitions and materials to all sides.  This time, I was hit hardest by one of the final sketches, a group of French soldiers offered the choice between being shot for disobeying orders or going to the front like lambs to the slaughter.  They followed their officer, bleating.