This script has been amplified by the talent involved Ed Bankes

Oh! What a Lovely War, Joan Littlewood’s satirical sketch show following the chronology of the First World War, is a modern classic that is remarkably important to bring to audiences a hundred years after the end of the First World War. It’s Orwellian sentiment of ‘war is peace’ is pushed to the limit through playfulness, as we are bombarded with an all-singing, all-dancing group of clowns to illustrate what a farce this war was. It addresses the situation’s futility, profiteering and new millionaires, societal pressure on men to enlist, the poor command of officers and leaders, and women’s roles as nurses and workers whilst on their mission for suffrage. In a way, director Zoe Black walked into an easy role with such a fantastic choice of script, that she, her cast and crew did complete justice to.

Curtain up on a character’s immediate address to the audience, and I’m uncertain: I haven’t seen it done like this before. But this isn’t a show that pretends there is no audience, in fact there is a statement in the fact that we are there, as if we are onstage or under inspection. The show got off to an uncertain start, and the cast and audience needed warming up a bit more. The topics of 1914 and the build up into war are extremely complex, and difficult to grasp at first, but perhaps that is the point: why is there such a huge war over a comparatively insignificant assassination?

"They mastered their cues, their comic timing and delivery which was so impressive and assuring"

As soon as we were into the war years, everything began to flow much better. The six-piece band, led by Laurence T-Stannard, was faultless, and the cast incredibly chosen.  They mastered their cues, their comic timing and delivery which was so impressive and assuring; I don’t know how many of them must read MML but their accents were amazingly studied. Leo Benedict was particularly convincing in his clowning, and Archie Williams struck the perfect but difficult balance of delivering a comic line whilst letting the sombre truth of it shine through. Indeed, every time we laugh as an audience,we are forced to check ourselves, to catch the laughter and recognise our role as bystanders.

Littlewood, writing in the 1960s, holds the mirror to our faces and shows us how the public can happily consume what they’re told by the media, oblivious to the motives of politicians, religious figures and business-people. The juxtaposition of facts with theatrical absurdity in such close proximity to each other shows what a fine line there was between the two. The statistics flash at the start of each battle scene, such as Verdun: 1.5 million men lost. The number is harrowing but incomprehensible. And then, the cast are singing nursery rhymes; a young cast of bright students having fun, some of whom, a century ago, may have been conscripted.

I also enjoyed Saffie Patel’s minimalist but versatile set design. This, alongside Black’s direction of some scenes, felt like Beckett. “Don’t shoot! It’s us. There’s humans over here.” - one nameless character shouts as they lay downstage, being shot at from both sides. Black also wove in some real footage or images from the front line, which played while songs came seeping in from the wings. “Gassed last night, and gassed the night before…” These songs haunt us, they’re so catchy that they plague us once we’ve left the theatre,


Mountain View

Chaos in Kunming

If anything, the show felt out of place as a late show. It needed abridgement, although the incessant sketches are, of course, driving home the extent of futility throughout the war. I felt keeping the interval was unnecessary, and this made the audience a little resentful by the end, even if the quality of the work being done wasn’t lessening.

However, this was a triumphant production which takes its comedy seriously. It’s a feel-bad, feel-good show full of nuance and satire and sheer talent on behalf of the cast and band. Credit should also be given to the seamless lighting and sound, which utilised the new ADC equipment exceptionally well. This important piece is not to be missed.