Juxtaposing the upbeat, optimistic songs of the 1910s with the horrible truths of life at the Front, Oh What A Lovely War caused much more than a stir when it was first produced by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop in 1963. Made up of a series of short vignettes, Oh What A Lovely War jumps swiftly between satirical portrayals of upper class officers, upbeat musical theatre numbers, and grim depictions of life in the trenches, all framed by a Pierrot show.
I can understand why the idea might have been shocking when the show debuted. As is alluded to at the end of the play, the men who fought in WWI often never spoke about their experiences and tried as much as possible to hide the horrors of what went on, so the realities of life in the trenches were not much talked about in 1963. However, we are now so used to seeing plays and films about both world wars, that it is very hard to find any new ground. Indeed, one of the central vignettes of Oh What A Lovely War is a portrayal of the No Man’s Land football game of Christmas 1914. Whilst the scene was well played and still moving in this production, that story has been told so many times (most recently in the Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas advert) that it did not have the poignancy it deserves.
Of course, there were some touching moments: scenes of nurses praying to God that the next push won’t bring as many wounded men as the last, wives lining up to read the casualties list, and men marching into battle baa-ing like sheep to demonstrate that they are being sent like lambs to the slaughter, all hit home. Many of the songs were also touching rather than just cheery: a particularly poignant moment was the singing of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’, first sung happily by two drunk soldiers, but finally sung heartbreakingly by the rest of the cast, with statistics of the numbers of dead rolling past on a screen in the background. However, ultimately the mixing of cheery war songs with scenes of trench life worked up to a point, but in the end it was all a bit confusing. With the show switching tone so frequently and suddenly, and with no central characters to guide the story, it was very difficult to know what to feel, and ultimately, to feel very much at all.
Oh What A Lovely War plays at Richmond Theatre until 14 February before continuing on its national tour. For more information and tickets, see the ATG website.