‘Oh What a Lovely War’ on tour

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It’s over fifty years since I first saw Oh What a Lovely War at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. The anniversary revival at Stratford East gained some good reviews last year, so I took the opportunity yesterday to catch up with the touring version of the production at  Manchester Opera House.
I went with mixed feelings. The show made a great impression on me when I was young, and in the seventies I greatly enjoyed acting in an amateur production (except that the moustache I wore when caricaturing General French was very unreliable). But I now know that much of the history the play relates is more than a bit dodgy. So what would the show look like on stage fifty years on?
The audience was surprisingly sparse. We filled less than half the stalls, and I don’t think there were many upstairs. Maybe this is partly because it’s not easy to buy tickets. The website that tries to sell them to you is clunky and laborious, and wants to charge an extra £4 booking fee to the already pricey cost of each and every ticket. I decided to get my ticket directly from the theatre, but when I got there found a notice to say that the box-office was shut, and tickets could be bought from the Palace Theatre, ten minutes walk away. After a lengthy wait in a queue there, I bought our tickets from a pleasant and efficient young man, but the Ambassador Theatre Group certainly doesn’t do its touring productions many favours by the way it operates.
This version of the show opens before the lights go down, with pierrot-actors coming into the audience for a chummy chat, to get us in the mood I suppose. Then there is a brief prologue, added to the original script, explaining what a pierrot show was. This included the show’s one topical quip: mention of seaside donkeys was accompanied by a photo of Nigel Farage. When the play opened in London last year, they apparently used Michael Gove. Easy targets?
The first number, ‘Row Row Row’ tells us that we are going to be in for a crisp and energetic production with lively choreography. Then we’re into the potted history of the causes of the First World War, played as farce. For Joan Littlewood and her collaborators back in 1963 this was a crucial part of the play. The Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and, as I’ve shown previously on this blog, the original production’s programme pointed up the topicality of the play’s depiction of an accidental world war.

Joan Littlewood’s main historical advisor, Raymond Fletcher (Labour M.P. and, it was later revealed, a Soviet spy) wrote a programme note:

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(Click to see a larger image)

There was a reason, therefore for the play’s depiction of the politicians of Europe as bungling fools inadvertently letting war happen, all equally absurd and equally guilty. No distinction is made between those keen for war and those working to avoid it. They are all just pompous puppets, doing things for which others will suffer. Back in 1963 this was a radical view of the history, and had the shock of the subversive. Today, even though given a lively staging by Terry Johnson, it just looks like Horrible Histories, and this audience member at least was thinking more about what it left out than what it was saying.
If Joan Littlewood had been directing the production today, she’d have been less reverent of her original text, I’d bet. Maybe the emphasis would have shifted to Gavrilo Princip,  young man with a grievance, whose impassioned terrorist act set off a chain of events far beyond his intentions, with results that others would exploit for their own purposes.
The play’s satirical scenes have not worn well. There is a particularly leaden one at the start of the second act, with industrialists and financiers plotting to prolong the war as much as possible, for the sake of profit. This is the stuff of Marxist conspiracy theory, and I remember being impatient with it even back in 1963.
But the show is saved now as then by the songs, and by the elan and versatility of the performers. In particular I liked Wendi Peters, a roly-poly actress who is a star of Coronation Street apparently, but here shows herself capable of much more than soapiness. Her rendition of ‘I’ll Make a Man of You’ was top-notch. She’s not Avis Bunnage, but she’s good. She also does a great ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers.’ Ian Reddington plays the Master of Ceremonies, and makes a very creditable job of Victor Spinetti’s drill-sergeant scene.
Terry Johnson is the show’s director, and the result is slick and inventive. The best scenes in this production are very good at doing the show’s sudden shifts in tone from comedy to pathos and quickly back again. The Christmas truce sequence is as effectuive as ever (until it is for me spoilt by the introduction of a few seconds of football – suddenly we were in the middle of a Sainsbury’s advert.) Maybe Johnson’s not that interested in the history, though. Photos from Passchendaele in 1917 came up on the screen to illustrate 1915 scenes. In fact no Briotish battles are presented as victories. The account of the Somme was more muddled than it needed to be, and that Battle is, of course, presented as a total failure rather than as a Pyrrhic victory. Casualty figures came up on the screen quickly, but it was sometimes unclear whether these were British casualties, Allied casualties or total (Allied plus German) casualties. I bet that some in the audience would have thought that these casualty figures were a count of the dead, rather than a mixture of dead, wounded and missing.
The second half of the play seemed a bit shapeless, partly because Haig, the figure who could give it narrative definition, is here a dull caricature. I’ve seen productions where he was given more depth – not just a bone-head, but a rigid man driven by sincere but mistaken principles, which makes him much more interesting.
More importantly, though, the shapelessness is in the script that Johnson was working with. The play completely avoids any suggestion that the Allies won the War, or that any Allied military operations were in any way successful. So, in this version, after the wonderfully effective ‘Chanson de Craonne’ song, the play stops telling any kind of story. Everyone sings ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and ‘They’ll never Believe Me’ and we’re finished.
The first draft of the script (which you can read in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive in the British Library) was different. In this, the play finishes by showing German soldiers and sailors forming soviets, and inviting the British to follow their example. I think I’m right in saying that this version was performed at Stratford East in 1963, but was changed for the West End transfer. However misguided the original might be (since the German soviets were not an outstanding success) at least it gave the play an ending.
I’ve done some carping about the play, and I’ve been picky, but this production is worth seeing, if only as a reminder of how the War was seen fifty years ago. And At their best the cast catch something of the ‘directness, frankness, and ferocious humour’ (T.S. Eliot’s phrase) that characterised the music-hall that Joan Littlewood loved so deeply.

2 Comments

  1. Steve Paradis
    Posted March 1, 2015 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    That the songs save the thing is a commonplace. What chance of a similar revival of Charles Chilton’s “The Long Long Trail”, with most of the songs and little of the cant?
    Like many of these things, “Oh! What a Lovely War” is more a relic of its own time than the time it purports to represent, like “War Horse”, a triumph of staging over content.
    But I’ll never forget the production of “Journey’s End” I saw at Stratford, Ontario more than twenty years ago–a simple staging with young actors who’d grown up seeing the memorials in their Canadian towns, and who brought that consciousness with them. And not just the Commonwealth; a Broadway production with a like spirit won accolades a few years ago.
    A “big” tour, or a film, would defeat the point; it’s something that should be local, with local players.

  2. Bill
    Posted March 3, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    You are quite right that Littlewood and the cast would not have been reverent of any particular text. As far as I know, Theatre Workshop usually performed without a fixed script. The one provided to the Lord Chamberlain – because this was a legal requirement – was simply a transcript of (in the case of OWALW) the second night’s performance. A transcript of another night could have been significantly different.

    I find it a little sad that OWALW is being revived in some ways as a preserved relic of the 60s. Clearly a Littlewood of today would not use a pierrot framing device which needed explaining to an audience that doesn’t understand it.

    Chilton’s motivation was “what horror could have taken place that rendered the burial of 35,942 men impossible and all in one relatively small area?”. It is hardly surprising that this proved an apt metaphor for a nuclear catastrophe potentially brought about by the posturing of politicians on all sides anxious to appear “strong”. The idea that a world war could be “winnable” was a dangerous concept in 1963, so it is hardly surprising “victory” went unmentioned.

    Perhaps these days the framing device would be a 60s theatre group which had come hotfoot from breaking in to the Regional Seat of Government in Reading and were performing the piece to their fellow marchers on the way to Aldermaston. I can clearly remember my sister showing me the photocopied Spies for Peace leaflet “Danger – Official Secret”, which she brought back. I don’t think they were called whistleblowers in those days, but I suspect some sudiences need as much education in those days of the cold war as they do in pierrot shows.

    Many of the TW ensemble rather resented the more upbeat ending and milking of the songs’ nostalgia that went into the West End transfer. To mirror that nostalgia, perhaps a new production would also need to slip in a few Beatles’ songs and miniskirts instead of the pierrots (after all, 1963 was also the year that “sexual intercourse began” according to Philip Larkin).


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