Oh What a Lovely War at Theatre Royal Stratford East
It’s near impossible not to be affected by the atmosphere of merriment that hits you as soon as you take your seat at Theatre Royal Stratford East. There’s a sense of excitement and expectation in the air for this revival of Joan Littlewood’s legendary 1963 play, Oh What a Lovely War.
The sound of laughter reverberates throughout the auditorium as leading man (Ian Reddington), wearing a Pierrot costume, jokes with the audience before the production starts. The realisation that this is part of the play hits us when leading lady (Wendi Peters) arrives late and apologises as she runs up on stage during the opening act.
Terry Johnson’s reimagining of Littlewood’s satire of WWI totally retains the authenticity of the original. The epic approach to the production allows for reverence for those who lived through and died in the war, while keeping the audience at a comfortably safe distance.
Throughout Oh What a Lovely War, the audience is never allowed to forget the casualties and deaths of the men who were sent to fight. There’s a running news reel above the stage displaying increasing statistics year by year, which forces us to acknowledge the numbers as people. Johnson’s montage technique of independent scenes and audience interruptions, however, ensures we never become too attached. The poignant scenes of death are immediately broken up with recognisable musical numbers from wartime, reflecting the tools used to keep Britons distracted from the realities of the Front during the war years. The audience sing along with the expertly executed performances on stage; some are flirty and funny while others are deeply touching.
The humour is not futile here – it satirically raises questions about the purpose of war. Though the script is incredibly patriotic towards Britain, it’s not afraid to condemn and mock her participation.
This rejuvenation of a classic is, essentially, for a new generation, but it becomes clear that it’s still aimed at a very particular demographic. It’s difficult to see how it would hold the interest of those who are perhaps not familiar with the content at an hour too long, but this doesn’t distract us from how technically brilliant Oh What A Lovely War is. It gives a voice to the soldiers of WWI without being overly sentimental. Although there is a distance maintained between audience and character, we become utterly familiar with the actors. As somebody in the audience remarks during the final song: “By the end of it, you almost feel as if they’re your family”. What a fitting tribute.
Photos: Alistair Muir
Oh What a Lovely War is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 7th February 2015, for further information or to book visit here.