Opening on the day of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, this production is an ambitious and forceful look at the absurdities of war. And it feels all the more relevant given the ongoing horrors in Gaza and Syria we are currently faced with every day.
The piece originally came into being through the great Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop, although she was reluctant initially, as she detested the war, military uniforms and everything they stood for.
The chorus-like Pierrot figures in this production surely reference her idea of “soft, fluffy entertainment”, providing an ironic counterpoint to the more military costumes and characters. The subject matter is huge and, in a sense, too awful to really comprehend. But comedy, satire and irony are well placed to help us examine these horrors.
There were some great visual moments; the moustachioed women on hobby horses; the cars carrying important figures made of a wheel or two and a vintage car horn. Then there were large musical numbers, often harking back to music hall traditions or authentic war songs, with the cast moving from the stage to the auditorium deftly accompanied by the company’s band. The women of the cast carried many good numbers, from ‘I’ll Make A Man of You’ to the title number (moustachioed again) – a good reminder of the fact many women were left at home to continue everything. The power machinations of the rich upper classes were examined with a telling scene set at a grouse shoot, acted by the younger members of the company which also gave it extra bite, as well as the now iconic Christmas Truce where soldiers from opposing sides came briefly together one Christmas Eve. The second half floundered a little in places, as it had so much ground to cover; regular announcements of the appalling losses; the suffragettes; the nurses; Haig being an insufferable religious maniac; mustard gas, (including the problem of gassing our own troops); more intrigue of the rich and powerful politicians at a ball, all punctuated with songs and comedic ‘Tommy’ moments.
The final projected information of the fact that, since 1918, British forces have consistently been involved in a conflict somewhere in the world was a shocking thought. It would be a fine thing to think that, sometime in a peaceful future for humankind, we could look at works like this as antique curios, but as this work points out, wars are not usually initiated by individuals, but rather by governments. As the great Edwin Starr said “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing”. Sarah Collins Oh What A Lovely War is at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday at 7.3pm, there is also a Saturday matinee at 2.15pm. For tickets go to salisburyplayhouse.com or call the box office on 01722 320333.