12 September 2017.
A ‘musical entertainment’ from the 1960s casting a satirical eye over the First World War and done in the style of old music hall theatre could sound like a dusty museum piece of a show. However while the Great War is now a century ago, as tensions simmer in Korea and the Russian army play war games on the borders of Europe’s Baltic states, this jaunty jaundiced look at the causes and consequences of war feels surprisingly relevant.
Kevin Shaw’s staging is true to Joan Littlewood’s original vision with the actors clad in pierrot costumes and a large screen showing news headlines and photos behind the action. The cast unflaggingly work their way through a whole range of characters – donning, doffing and discarding a succession of hats and headwear like participants in a children’s party game. The stark contrast between the ever-present casualty statistics while the cast jape and jostle for our attention still packs a punch.
The Coliseum’s 1930s interior is a perfect home for the music hall setting. On stage, the curving painted backdrop of pillars propping up a balcony seems to mirror the layout of the auditorium and the play reflects back some painful truths beyond its war setting. A slide flashing up the news “Brussels falls” triggers thoughts on contemporary parallels. Here are European leaders squabbling and plotting against each other while stumbling unwittingly towards conflict. Under the cover of ‘all being in it together’ the upper classes exercise self-entitlement, taking the best jobs while consigning millions of ordinary men to their grim fates. And all the while businessmen exploit the situation to make massive fortunes. Half a century since it was written and twice as long since the events it describes took place this is still a play with plenty to say.
The show revels in the music hall setting – a place of raised eyebrows, subversive comedy and simple emotions. Frequent shifts in setting and tone are cleverly managed and the 10 strong cast of actor-musicians never let things falter. Lauryn Redding, Isobel Bates and Barbara Hockaday bring emotional grit and poignancy to the vocal performances. To its credit, Shaw’s production never chases cheap sentiment and even a moving section set in the trenches at Christmas is delivered with restraint.
‘Oh What A Lovely War‘ combines a genuine love of its music hall form with an urgent need to speak about war and injustice. Oldham Coliseum’s revival engagingly entertains but never shies away from what lurks behind the smiles, singalongs and laughter. It’s a whizzbang of a show, flying high with energy and landing on its targets with a calculating precision.
Image courtesy of Joel Chester Fildes.