Joan Littlewood once said Oh, What A Lovely War! ‘is not aconventional play and will not come to life if treated as such’. From the Perriot clown who chastises the audience taking their seats to the pre-recorded sing-song by Bruiser Production’s patron Duke Special, this revival of Littlewood’s savage evisceration of the first world war seldom plays it straight.
First produced by the legendary Theatre Workshop in 1963, the play blends militant politics and entertainment as a Pierrot troupe perform sketches and songs while images and newspaper clippings about the number of dead flash up on a screen behind them. In this recasting of the great war the real heroes are not the callous, negligent officer class but the aptly titled cannon fodder.
This is physical theatre at its finest. The nine-strong troupe convincingly shift between intentionally jingoistic caricatures of the great powers – effeminate France, anti-Semitic Russia, officious Germany – and ribald trench songs about everything from poison gas and bombs to homesickness and fear of death: ‘I don’t want a bayonet in my belly/I don’t want my bollocks shot away.’
Humour is used throughout to both send up and underline the absurdity of war. In an early scene a reticent gang of Pierrots in English army caps practice rifle manoeuvres with pink parasols and sticks. Admonishing their squeamishness, a stereotypically foul-mouthed, moustachioed drill sergeant growls at them: ‘You look at Jerry, imagine he’s doing something to your mother.’
Commandingly directed by Lisa May, the play evokes strong emotional responses without drifting into sentimentality. The potent mix of facts and photographs attests the scale of the horror, while dramatic moments like the exchange of gifts and songs across no man’s land at Christmas 1914 provide haunting, poignant reminders of the gulf between combatants and cause.
The performances are universally excellent. Although it seems somewhat churlish to single anyone out the acting and singing of Patrick J O’Reilly, Faolán Morgan and Niamh McGowan deserve special praise.
By turns bawdry and touching, the songs retain a vibrancy that belies their age, and live instruments, including accordion, flute and drums, believably recreate the sounds of war.
In keeping with Bruiser’s maxim of ‘minimum set for maximum effect’, David Craig’s spartan set is wholly fit for purpose. All furniture needs are served by four movable slabs, and Sean Paul O’Rawe’s unfussy lighting – simple chains of naked coloured bulbs – complements the drama’s shifting tone.
From Afghanistan to Iraq, the spectre of war still hangs over all. While it would be fascinating to see Oh, What A Lovely War! updated for such media saturated conflicts, this excellent production is a fitting tribute to those who went to their graves in the first world war, and a damning indictment of those who sent them there.