The stage play originated in 1963 Ed Bankes

Joan Littlewood’s ‘epic musical’ was originally conceived with the aim of humouring audiences with “the vulgarity of war”, breaking down the mystifying patriotism that encloses many portrayals of the First World War. Its premise is one of distance. Archie Williams, an ensemble-member, explains, “our society is as distant from the realities of war as the WWI generals were from their frontline infantry at the Somme”. Director Zoe Black’s production takes this simple premise and crafts it into a self-aware portrayal of the visceral reality of conflict.

she aims to capture the uneasy relationship between the narrative of war, in all its absurd patriotism, and its harsh actuality

Oh, What a Lovely War emerged out of a collaborative process initiated by Littlewood’s infamous Theatre Workshop. The musical combines propagandistic songs from the era with a mirage of episodes from the war, playing upon the contrast between the bonhomie of the music and the grim warfare. Zoe explains: “we are not interested in making a museum piece of a show, in line the Birdsong-tradition of naturalistic portrayals of war”. Rather, she aims to capture the uneasy relationship between the narrative of war, in all its absurd patriotism, and its harsh actuality. “Joan Littlewood was too clever to simply antagonise the WWI practitioners”, Zoe continues. Instead, she sets up an “illusion of patriotic flag-waving at the outset, then slowly degrades the unity of this message throughout”, allowing the pathos of war to seep through to the audience organically.

The script is crucial to this endeavour. Absurd and satirical, it can “turn on a dime, emotionally and tonally”, says Archie. This is clear even from the short rehearsal I observe: one ironically triumphant marching scene transitions swiftly into a soldier’s poignant monologue about home. Archie expands on this further, arguing that the musical “trades on stock characters then breaks through into pathetic portrayal of individual suffering”. The ensemble cast is key to this, with no one role being fixed as such, but with characters fluidly shifting from one persona to another. Zoe has emphasised the performativity of this: the characters themselves are as aware of their fictionality as the audience is, which makes the illusion of patriotism all the more pronounced.

Make-up will play a big factor in this exciting aesthetic, which draws on the suprematism art movement

As with other plays that Zoe has directed, this production is aesthetically ambitious. The show has “taken inspiration from the stark minimalist presentation of the original Theatre Workshop production, in which the ensemble wore all-white Pierrot costumes, but have updated it to feel modern and invigorating”. Make-up will play a big factor in this exciting aesthetic, which draws on the suprematism art movement, with its intense exaggeration of geometric shape. Zoe sees suprematism as a “natural extension of the Pierrot aesthetic”. It makes sense to bring in this specific external influence when so much of the musical is about the jarring of rigid ideas against each other. 

Speaking to the show’s musical director, Laurence T-Stannard, it is clear that all aesthetic elements of the production have been designed to interweave subtly into the central play of parody and portrayal. There is a “blend of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, both parodying the music hall songs of the time and serving as further characterisation to the obscene figures on stage”. Entertainment is as much the aim as subtle character development and satire.


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This exciting re-interpretation of Littlewood’s classic is as relevant now as it ever has been. At a time when technological advance further artificializes our experience of conflict, Oh, What a Lovely War draws attention to both our distance from conflict and our crafting of mystifying narratives around war. It is entertaining and provoking in equal measure.

Oh, What a Lovely War runs from 10 October - 13 October at the ADC Theatre. Curtains open at 11.00pm.

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