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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Stratford East


  Ph: Nobby Clark

It was nearly the 50th anniversary of the First World War when Joan Littlewood's anti-war musical made its debut in 1963. Nothing quite like it had been seen. The era of deference had only recently begun to be eroded on television with the satire That Was the Week that Was. But the stage was still ruled by the Lord Chamberlain, and the impertinent implication that the “donkey” generals and politicians who sent a generation of young “lions” to their deaths during the war were still in power, hadn't lost it's its edge. A show such as this could teach them the lesson that history had failed to – or so it felt to some at the time.

Back on the same stage where it was first seen, the musical has lost none of its dramatic potency, although its political edge has become somewhat blunted. A little like the final message in Brecht's Arturo Ui, which warns that the bitch that bore Hitler is in heat again, Oh What a Lovely War cautions that the war is a game that is still being played and that the number of players has no limit. But for the ruling classes – yes, such a thing still exists in Britain – satire is water off a duck's back these days. However, the combination of cheery jingoistic musical hall songs that encouraged Britain’s young men to sign up in the millions, and the statistics showing the rate at which they died, is as potent as it ever was. It's still shocking. 

In Terry Johnson's production, the death rates of tens of thousands per day and the final count of millions are displayed on an ever-changing electronic display. At first it looks a little incongruous against the show's early 20th-century setting. As is often the case with this oasis of Victoriana located in a sea of soulless new builds, Stratford's theatre itself becomes part of the show. Where better to perform musical hall gems such as "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers – terrifically delivered her by Caroline Quentin – than within this venue's cosy embrace?

But what emerges is a sense that the electronic display speaks of the timelessness of the show's message, and its observations about the pitilessness of the powerful. Here General Haig sends a generation of young men to their deaths with little more than a shrug while international industrialists count the profits of supplying the demand for arms. One thing perhaps has changed since the show was here last. Whereas then (I imagine) audiences in the more optimistic 1960s left with some hope that the world can be changed by shows such as these, this time we leave this beautiful building with a sense of resigned impotence.

My guest on this bight uses a telling question to judge a person's character. Would you want this person next to you in the trenches? Few can confidently say that they would pass such a test. In fact, anyone who claims they would probably wouldn't. But a hundred years after the outbreak of World War I it's some kid of testament that the trench test is still the ultimate measure of human spirit amid monumental suffering.


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