The brutal horror and lasting trauma of war have seldom been better portrayed on stage than in Joan Littlewood’s masterful and radical 1963 musical drama Oh What a Lovely War.
Revived at its original Stratford East venue last year to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, the piece is now touring and with stark reminders of that historical commemoration still fresh in people’s minds it is no surprise that the show has the power to get the audience singing along and leave them in a state of haunted silence in equal measure.
It somehow feels at home in Brighton, as the town provided the setting for Richard Attenborough’s famous film version, but this is no jolly exercise in nostalgia - the anti-war message with blame placed squarely on the shoulders of leaders remains powerful and remarkably contemporary, with a chilling sign-off that the war games still continue today.
Terry Johnson’s slick revival sticks to the format of the pierrot show using music hall songs and others from the era and there’s also some bang up to date references as the theatre of war is acted out. However this is no carbon copy of Joan Littlewood’s daring production - it has freshness and depth of its very own.
Led Brotherston’s clever multipurpose set allows an electronic display to be flown in throughout, largely to show the sobering numbers of dead as the war progresses, while a big screen shows recruiting adverts and bleak photos from the front. Peter White and the band give a period feel to the music, with a jollity that seems carefully at odds with the war games.
It is undeniably dark but co?our and life is ensured thanks to a uniformly enthusiastic company of 12… including Ian Reddington’s down to earth, affable, yet nonetheless sinister MC (whose incomprehensible sergeant major drill routine is a riot and would have delighted its creator, the late Victor Spinetti); Christopher Villiers’ out of touch Haig; and Wendi Peters standing out with her saucy recruiting song I’ll Make a Man of You - with likely male members of the audience being handed a shilling - and getting everyone to sing along to the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers.
Age has not withered or wearied Oh What A Lovely War - and with this Theatre Royal Stratford East revival there is evidence that it will continue to shock, inspire, entertain, educate and challenge for a long time yet.