Developed by Joan Littlewood in 1963, ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ was branded a satire on World War I. Littlewood shared her hopes of having an audience leave the theatre laughing rather than brooding over a war that was penned the war to end all wars.
And the production did contain comical moments along with great comedic performances, one in particular – Wendi Peters who proves she’s better suited to a life on stage than on the cobbles. She was the performer to watch, offering the highest levels of entertainment.
Littlewood was known widely as a communist and produced many scripts written originally by the angry young men of the 1950’s including Sparrers Can’t Sing, The Hostage and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. So why did Littlewood turn her back on realism in favour of satire?
Over the past century the First World War has been recollected through the words of many a soldier-poet, who portrayed extreme action, sodden with dirt and blood in such a way that these images of sadness and horror still resonate with us today.
There are very few portrayals of war communicated to an audience in the style of Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War and as the production unravels it’s evident that the blatant satire gives way to a much more subtle message.
The production begins as you would imagine for a satirical piece, reminiscent of the comedic features of Allo, Allo. The audience clapped along to numbers such as ‘Row Row Row’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ as flamboyant dance routines had female dancers throwing their petticoats above their head.
We tapped our feet to each number rolling in one after the other and as we did a new fact or statistic would roll across a screen that hung above the stage informing the audience of the war’s progressing narrative.
As the production continued the flamboyant dance numbers slowly declined whilst the facts and statistics grew in line with the bleak toll of casualties and fatalities.
The laughter lessened and the audience participation came to a complete halt as the only numbers from the stage were those of the soldiers dying in the trenches.
‘Most of all we were indebted to the unnamed soldiers whose songs we sang’ – Joan Littlewood
Littlewood invites an audience to become a part of the World War I society. She encourages them to deny the devastation of War and to sing-a-long to the classics that were created and performed to distract communities. We, the audience comply but then with no warning she reminds us what we’re really singing about and what we’re really clapping to. She does this subtly, she lessens the satire and leaves us with the voice of the soldier, the bereaved family, the struggling working class, and then she asks us if we care to sing again, and we find we can’t.
Each performer of Littlewood’s revival entertained enthusiastically, all outstanding dancers and singers, all convincing empire rulers, socialites and soldiers.