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REVIEW: Oh! What A Lovely War | Opera House

Joan Davies on a piece of theatre history and a reflection on war in our time.

Written by . Published on February 26th 2015.

REVIEW: Oh! What A Lovely War | Opera House

AN appropriately timed revival of Joan Littlewood’s ground breaking Oh! What A Lovely War is making a welcome but short appearance at Manchester’s Opera House.

As its now fifty years since the show’s first appearance, the variety style of entertainment is more distant and the open criticism of WW1 leaders more familiar and less shocking

In a largely ensemble piece staged as a pierrot show, Wendi Peters (Corrie’s Cilla) and Ian Reddington (briefly Corrie’s Vernon, one of Liz’s many lovers) come the closest to starring roles and stand out performances. The work stands or falls on ensemble performance, and this production delivers throughout.

Oh! What A Lovely War premiered in 1963. It was ground breaking in content, style and reaction, even attracting attention in more recent times when a pre-demotion Michael Gove criticised the modern view of WW1 as relying too heavily on the view the show presents.

Owalw286Wendi Peters 

Appropriately for a study of a war arising in Europe, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop which devised the piece drew heavily on European theatre traditions, particularly that of Commedia dell'arte, the source of the Pierrot figure. Entertaining Pierrot troupes were popular in the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century, providing variety entertainment, particularly at the seaside. The continental Pierrot was more than a figure of fun; he incited sympathy through melancholy and an often misplaced and unrequited love and longing; an appropriate figure to represent the British WW1 Tommy perhaps. 

Even so Joan Littlewood took the decision to present the war’s statistics - men lost:yards gained - across a backdrop, rarely in view of the performers as they sit in their trenches or go ‘over the top’. A fierce loyalty to comrades in arms pervades the troop scenes while top brass and profiteers are presented as largely and often cheerfully oblivious to human loss.

The current touring production directed by Terry Johnson, hails from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the home of the original, one of the many theatre productions marking the 100 year anniversary.

The musical is packed with familiar and less-familiar songs from the time of the WW1, including It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the Home Fires Burning, and the compulsory church service scene uses well-known hymns with words adjusted, Tommy style.

Owalw619Oh! What A Lovely War

Wendi Peters makes great use of her singing skills and timing to excel in multiple roles from posh to factory girl, including the compulsory Sing-A-Long Sister Suzie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers. Ian Reddington is a delight throughout, and makes the most of the incomprehensible sergeant at the training ground. There are a few quibbles. The social and political manoeuvrings of top ranking commanders seems overlong and the arms dealers seem too much of a caricature. Perhaps I’m wrong here; I’ve never knowingly met any.

As its now fifty years since the show’s first appearance, the variety style of entertainment is more distant and the open criticism of WW1 leaders more familiar and less shocking. The engaging performances and the sheer strength of the material (Joan Littlewood’s approach to devising work would have ensured that the facts and quotes were thoroughly checked) make this production worth a view, both as a piece of theatre history and as a reflection on war in our time.

Oh! What a Lovely War runs at Manchester Opera House until Saturday 28 February 2015.      

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