Review: Oh What a Lovely War

Joan Littlewood's satire returns to the Southwark Playhouse.
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Music, history and clowning around. What more could your ask for on a winter’s night? Southwark Playhouse is currently hosting a production of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War. The play is a romp through the First World War, full of satire and old songs – told at a breakneck speed. The scenes are played out from various viewpoints (soldiers and civilians), foreign and domestic. The pace seldom relents, yet the show remains well structured and choreographed. The director, Nicky Allpress, should be applauded for successfully negotiating the tightrope walk between rambunctiousness and remembrance.

The deliberately ramshackle set looks like it might fall apart at any moment with a robust blow from a trombone but, like the rest of the show, everything holds together. All of the cast should be commended for their range (they all display musicianship, good singing voices and comedic chops – in more than one accent) but notable mentions should go to Harry Curley and Alice Mayer. Mayer is a torrent of energy, wit and charm. Casting directors should duly take note of her name and performance.

The show is suitable for all ages. The older audience members will doubtless be filled with a sense of nostalgia for some of the songs – and the younger members of the audience should not forget them. Oh What A Lovely War is fine starter in relation to the Great War, but the main course should involve reading a number of history books on the subject. There are few bum notes in this musical, but Littlewood’s treatment of Haig is unfair at best – and at worst is a product of ill-informed, leftist propaganda. For anyone interested in reading more about Haig, who dedicated the end of his career to the welfare of soldiers and was mourned by the British people at his passing, I would recommend reading The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army by Gary Sheffield. I have also recommended some other books on the First World War below.

Perhaps the final word about the production should go to the Australian lady who sat next to me. “I learned and laughed a lot.”

Recommended Reading:

1914 – 1918: The History of the First World War, by David Stevenson

Mud, Blood and Poppycock, by Gordon Corrigan

Forgotten Victory, by Gary Sheffield

The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson

The First World War, by John Keegan

Oh What a Lovely War is on at the Southwark Theatre now. Richard Foreman is a bestselling author.