Oh What A Lovely War
28th November 2014
The Memorial Hall, Ponteland
Type of Production
Author: Michael L. Avery
The concept of this show came from a radio documentary, assembled by Charles Chilton, in which he juxtaposed the uplfting songs of the Great War against the reminiscences of men who had seen the reality of trench warfare up close. Originally called The Long Long Trail, it eventually became Oh! What A Lovely War after Joan Littlewood was persuaded it could make the basis of a stage musical. Littlewood was not keen at first, having a distinct antipathy to war, uniforms and all they stand for. The first act seems very much like a review of, mostly, familiar, songs which the audience is tempted to sing along to. Then, during the last song in Act One, comes the first on stage shell burst. The second act is much darker, hinting at the reality, brutality and wastefulness of war.
Many of the songs are familiar, even today. It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag, Goodbye-ee (during which that first explosion takes place), Roses of Picardy, Keep The Home Fires Burning, And When They Ask Us (based on Jerome Kern’s They Didn’t Believe Me) and a slightly sanitised version of I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier. Those are the ones I knew. There are many more songs of the same vintage in the production.
Joan Littlewood refused to allow khaki in her production so, as a compromise, the cast wore pierrot costumes and tin hats. In this production, as a compromise, the cast wore black sweatshirts and trousers. The story of the war is told in a series of slides, travelling from one horrendous death toll to another. Most of the players take on several parts, identified mainly by a change of hat and their acting ability. It proved to be a very moving experience. I have particular praise for Jonathan Cash who played the Master of Ceremonies, Sir John French, a Swiss Arms Manufacturer and an Army Chaplain. As the Chaplain he was hilarious, a welcome relief from the horrors unfolding around him. Musical Director, Stephen Stokoe, was also impressive as he slipped out of the pit to take on three parts. Katie Howes gave us two solo numbers as a music hall singer. Ted Henderson performed a very creditable solo of Roses of Picardy.
There were 19 people in the cast, playing several parts and acting as part of the chorus, plus five dancers. It must have been a nightmare for director, Carole Davies, and the cast to knit it all together. It seems iniquitous not to mention each performer and the several parts they all played but that is what the official programme is for. Suffice it to say, they all played and sang their many parts well, and the sum of those parts was a very moving anti-war entertainment, if such a thing is possible. Based upon this production, I would say that it is.