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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Stratford East


  Ian Bartholomew/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Joan Littlewood’s legendary show, Oh What a Lovely War, opened in 1963 and was later made into a film. This revival for the centenary of the outbreak of World War I takes place at the lovely old east London theatre where it first appeared. 

Fifty years ago the Theatre Workshop collective researched its own material and came up with a “devised” war revue – part documentary, part satire, part vaudeville – that proved a massive hit. In some ways it still looks anarchic even if its claims to documentary “truth” have been a major contributor to the mythology of the war. But the show works. It’s mix of ferocity and music is its enduring strength. 

Amid the trench songs (the soldiers are played by a troupe of Edwardian clowns), ditties and ballads, a news panel flashes statistics of various battles. You are not human if your gorge doesn’t rise at the scale of the slaughter. The show is relentless in mocking the profiteering and the politics. Special contempt is reserved for Field Marshal Haig (“there must be no squeamishness over losses”) in contrast to the sympathy felt for the “tommies” who did the bulk of the dying. (America suffered, too, with some 110,000 killed, and the show was once a hit on Broadway.) 

Terry Johnson’s faithful revival boasts a handful of eye-socking performances, notably from Shaun Prendergast as both the MC and a drill sergeant who shrieks falsetto nonsense. Ian Batholomew and Michael Simkins are spot on as top-brass buffoons, and Caroline Quentin a great asset as a music hall turn who sings the recruitment song "I’ll Make a Man of You." She also plays Mrs Pankhurst, reading out Bernard Shaw’s fabulous anti-war broadside.

What is so striking is the show’s moral disgust at the sheer vulgarity of the war and its flyblown horror. That vulgarity finds its reflection in a hugely appealing, gaudy theatricality. Yet part of me hates Oh What a Lovely War for its class-obsessed, unpatriotic bitterness, and for the way it exalts the common soldier while at the same time traducing his sacrifice. Fifty years ago Littlewood and her cast of peacenik actors couldn’t accept the simple truth – that the vast majority of the British troops who fought in that war did not believe they were dying in vain.

This musical is utterly the product of the early 60s and the Cold War, an era to which this very lively if slightly unambitious production never alludes. But it is still a towering World War I landmark for all that – the best modern play about the human cost of that terrible war and indeed the stupidity of all wars.


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