Reviews The David Beach Competition
Oh! What a Lovely War
The Blakehay Theatre
Weston super Mare
Saturday 3rdNovember 2018
Oh! What l Lovely War is rather different from the majority of musical theatre productions I have the pleasure of reviewing. Created in the early Nineteen Sixties by Joan Littlewood and her partner Gerry Raffles with Theatre Workshop at London’s Stratford East Theatre, the show was inspired by a radio documentary featuring recollections of the First World War by the men on the front line along with popular songs of the time. The pair developed the concept of a concert party all in Pierrot:thewhite-faced, black costume of the Comedie D’el Arte tradition, performing songs and vignettes of life on the home and actual fronts whilst a news ‘tickertape’ announced the extraordinary facts and figures of the enormous losses in the mud and filth of Ypres and Aras. Littlewood’s intent was satirical: for the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the ‘Great’ war. It is often suggested that the show was instrumental in forming the modern view of the First World War: The tragic, mechanical slaughter of a generation of young men, led by callous, misguided and out-of-touch generals.
In this, the hundredth anniversary of the end of the conflict it is very fitting, particularly in November that WODS chose to present this striking piece of remembrance. Director Blair Ruddick with Co-Director Aaron Pengelly chose to keep the tradition of the Pierrot costume for the cast but eschewed the tickertape in favour of a stentorian announcer’s voice delivering the horrifying facts and figures of the conflict. Staging was very simple; chairs for the cast lined three sides of the stage and the band were contained upstage behind a simple fence. The donning, mostly in plain view of a few items of costume over the simple Pierrot – a khaki jacket and tin hat, a staff officers cap, a red skirt, a cap and scarf to instantly establish characters was very effective. The white-face ‘masks’ under the costume worked, just as Joan Littlewood intended, to add a subtle degree of absurdity, brilliantly undermining the wide-eyed acceptance of many of the victims and the crass unconnectedness of the generals.
The uniformity of the white-face makeup has an additional effect: that of firmly cementing Oh! What a Lovely War as an Ensemble piece. The star of the show is the whole cast. For the piece to be believable and effective every member of the cast must be fully focused and engaged. The WODS team stepped smartly up to the mark and delivered just what was needed. There was a cohesiveness to the group which was almost palpable and is testament to what a friendly, inclusive and likeable society they are. There were many, many standout moments as individuals performed solo or in small groups: touching songs, funny songs, poignant moments, hilarious moments and horrifying moments but the lasting memory for me was of a Team.
Musically the team delivered very well. Under Musical Director Ashleigh Powell the band were well organised and singing was of a very good order. Solo pieces were delivered with a pleasing naturalness that suited the show very well and chorus numbers had great attack and power but subtlety too, as required. Harmonies were accurate and easy on the ear. The band were occasionally a little loud, particularly when underscoring dialogue but this may be more a function of the sound engineers than the MD.
Direction was effective yet sufficiently restrained to avoid pushing a very evocative show into schmaltziness. The hold of the minute’s silence from the cast as the men marched off to war was exquisitely judged: the smallest pin having the temerity to drop in the auditorium at that moment would have been deafening. The Directors had engendered terrific engagement from the cast throughout the piece: even when ‘sitting out’ from a scene on the chairs around the stage every performer remained utterly still and focused. Very impressive from a
To describe this as an ‘enjoyable’ show is difficult. It presents many unpalatable facts about humanity and our self-destructive, unpleasant nature. ‘Thought-provoking, poignant and powerful’ is perhaps a more accurate statement. WODS presented the show with respect, dignity and ability. As a piece of theatre it is, for me at least, a potent reminder not only of the fallen but of the folly of war.
Thanks for inviting me