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Oh What a Lovely War (Susan Elkin reviews)

society/company: Artform
performance date: 09 Nov 2018
venue: Broadway Studio Theatre SE6 4RU

The jarring, incongruous horror of the juxtaposition of a Pierrot pier show and the death of ten million people (plus twenty-one million injured and seven million missing) worked in 1963 when Joan Littlewood first devised it and it works now. And, of course, Artform’s thoughtful staging of it this week – as the world commemorates the Armistice centenary – is no coincidence.

With a cast of just fourteen and a side stage band of five Artform find ways of presenting this ambitious piece in the very restricted space (if only the seating area were less cramped…) of Catford Broadway Theatre’s downstairs studio space. They use arches, simple props and minimal – often frighteningly hilarious costume add-ons – to tell the story of the 1914/18 war. And as they cavort on stage the news, facts and archive photographs are projected behind them so that you never lose the sense of loss without being allowed to sentimentalise for a second. Projection is provided by Sound Choice Hire Ltd and managed by Benjamin Essenhigh with advice from Lee Waddington – a fine job all round. We still need to be reminded, for example, that 1.3 million men died on the Somme for no gain.

There’s some very pleasing singing in this show especially from Alexandria Wharram, Nadine Plater and Elaine Boxall Lewis. Performers work without radio mics which creates a freshness and intimacy you don’t often get in musical theatre too. The ensemble work – and of course this is every inch an ensemble show – is imaginatively directed by Matthew Westrip who neatly exploits the many and various talents of each cast member.

Accent and language work, for example, is notably effective. The British have always been weak linguists and have always made fun of themselves in a rather it-doesn’t-matter-much-because-we’re-British way. The proposal scene in Henry V is a good example and there’s a funny one in Oh What a Lovely War. But congratulations to the British actors in this cast who speak French or German very convincingly when they need to. There’s a strong scene featuring doomed Irishmen in a trench too. Susan Booth, in particular, masters a whole series of accents including Scots.

When James Harrison-Baker starts the show as a compere/warm up he’s quite funny but I honestly thought for a minute that we’d seen the extent of his work. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He slips in and out of cameos for the whole show, using a wide range of voices, accents and stances. As the chilling Douglas Haig, for example, he is outstanding and he has a fine singing voice.

The music is famously mostly based on arrangements of very familiar World War One songs beautifully played in this production by MD James Hall and his four fellow musicians – good, incidentally, and quite unusual to see a female drummer (Janette Williams). The immaculately ironic hymns scene in which the elegant women safely at home sing the real words of Onward Christian Soldiers, What a Friend We Have in Jesus and The Church’s One Foundation while the weary, battle torn men on the opposite side of the stage sing graphically irreverent ones is one of the high spots.

The most moving moment of this show comes at the very end. We’ve laughed, gasped in horror and maybe even shed a tear or two for two and a half hours. Then the cast just melts away. There’s no cheerful, smiling, curtain call. You leave the theatre, exactly as Joan Littlewood meant you to, reflecting not on how accomplished the performers were but trying to get your head round how, for example, 60,000 men could be killed in three hours while those giving the orders cared so little.

First published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Artform-Oh%20What%20A%20Lovely%20War&reviewsID=3380

Author information
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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