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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Oh What A Lovely War
Theatre Royal Stratford East   Spring 2014

It seems rather strange that this lovingly produced new version of Oh What a Lovely War should have missed the musical's Golden Jubilee by a matter of months. However, it is now billed as commemorating the centenary of Joan Littlewood's birth, not to mention the start of that tragic event which is always referred to without any irony as “The Great War".

On opening night, a good number of audience members, including several in the press contingent, were able to recollect that original production 51 years ago. For everyone else, especially the school parties who will inevitably be invited to take part in this novel reinterpretation of history, the experience will be slightly different but equally moving.

Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop has become legendary and, in part, that is due to the savage irony of Oh What a Lovely War.

The evening starts with a gentle Pierrot show packed with corny jokes delivered with dry aplomb by Sean Pendergast.

What feels like the start of a light-hearted evening continues through the slapstick murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the political shenanigans that eventually led to this war to end all wars.

However, once the soldiers reach the trenches, the character of the evening changes forever, with neon surtitles proclaiming the number of dead and wounded in each succeeding battle.

This is truly shocking and really brings home to viewers the terrible cost of a four-year period that will seem to many 21st-century viewers to have been completely pointless. However, who knows what might have happened had the good guys not triumphed in 1918?

The evening contains enough of the history and politics to satisfy teachers bringing their classes to Stratford but there is also a chance for humanity to shine through. This is never more apparent than on a silent Christmas night when two groups of soldiers who had earlier in the day been trying to kill each other become unified in song and schnapps for a few short minutes.

The magic of this musical entertainment that contains numerous songs of the period, every single one jaunty enough to make one forget the horrors that it is covering up, is that the original team, featuring Joan Littlewood, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and the cast managed to create a perfect ensemble entertainment in which nobody, however well-known, gets a disproportionate amount of the glory.

In some ways, that might make the casting of TV favourites Caroline Quentin and Michael Simkins unnecessary. However, they do their bit alongside a dedicated crew of performers who sing, dance and act their hearts out.

In doing so, they pay appropriate tribute to a legendary piece of theatrical history that still feels vibrant and important 51 years after its initial production at Stratford East, prior to a mooted West End transfer that would be equally well-deserved for Terry Johnson's enjoyable revival.

Philip Fisher

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Review -  Oh What A Lovely War - Theatre Royal Stratford East - 2014

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