Oh, Oh, Oh what a lovely war!
There’s been no shortage of World War I plays recently. After seeing Regeneration in October, followed by ‘The Christmas Truce’ in December, we’ve now been to see the grand-daddy of them all – ‘Oh what a lovely war’ at the Theatre Royal, Bath in a production by Terry Johnson that comes from Stratford East, where it was originally created in 1963.
At least with this play there’s no doubt where it stands, and there’s none of the risk of over-sentimentality that hung over ‘The Christmas Truce’. The shocking statistics of the war are regularly run on an electronic ticker tape across the stage and despite the jauntiness implicit in staging it as a music hall show, it’s always a subversive jauntiness ready to undermine any hint of patriotism, sentimentality or sanctimoniousness with a vulgar comment or a hard statistic.
It probably seemed much more subversive in 1963 than it does now. The image of lions led by donkeys has since become the standard view of the First World War, and we have no difficulty in imagining that the officer class were callous and out of touch, or that businessmen were profiteering from the war. But the bigger difference may be that a good half of the audience then would have had personal memories of the war, as well as familiarity with the music hall tradition and all the old songs. Now it’s in danger of appearing like a quaint period piece, rather than a biting satire, despite efforts to maintain its relevance that included a reference to donkeys that cut to a picture of Nigel Farage, and an interruption to the curtain calls to remind us that the ‘game of war’ is still being played.
There was plenty to like in the production, with some strong acting, great singing, some very funny scenes and the occasional emotional tug. I thought some of the scenes with the pierrots rather lacked energy, but there was plenty of vitality elsewhere. The incomprehensible sergeant major was a great laugh, as was the incomprehension between the French and British generals, and the stylised football game between Germans and Brits worked rather better than the real kick-about on stage in ‘The Christmas Truce’.