Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
John Kitching
3:00 PM 27th March 2024

Oh What A Lovely War A Real Whizzbang Show

The opportunity to see Oh What a Lovely War by pioneering writer/director Joan Littlewood is one that should never be missed. With a circus theme complete with Ringmaster/MC and his artistes who interact with the audience throughout, even before the show commences, It is thought-provoking throughout, as the audience is deftly taken on a history lesson about the First World War.

The critically acclaimed touring production by Blackeyed Theatre is performed by just six actors, each taking at least 20 roles, from the comedic to the tragic, while also providing their own musical accompaniment. They all play around six instruments at various stages of the show. Each actor moves seamlessly between their various roles, maintaining energy and focus throughout. Always hilarious, shocking, and poignant, the show is an exploration of human conflict. Although over 60 years old and set in World War One, the machinations that surrounded that time remain as timely in 2024 as they were in the 1960s and capture the futility of conflict and stubborn leadership.

The Cast 
Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
The Cast Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
This production marks the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s famous satirical, groundbreaking musical. At the time, all scripts had to be approved by The Lord Chamberlin’s Office. Littlewood, however, preferred to allow the actors to improvise around her script, adding their own touches to make the show truly unique. Due to this stance, Littlewood was twice prosecuted and fined under The Theatres Act 1843 for allowing the actors to improvise; this law was only repealed in 1968.

Everyone will have their own favourite piece, whether it’s the wonderfully staged ballroom scene following General Haig’s announcement as Commander of the British forces, the Christmas truce and meeting of opposing troops in No Man’s Land in 1914, the Irish Guards scene (which has stuck with me since I first saw the show over 45 years ago), or the English and German housewives chatting over their washing lines. The list could go on; there are so many short vignettes that appear on stage for a brief moment and are then gone in around the same time as the average life of an English machine gunner on the frontlines of World War I (4 minutes).

Harry Curley as Sergeant Major training recruit Tom Crabtree
Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
Harry Curley as Sergeant Major training recruit Tom Crabtree Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
One scene that struck me was the whole cast ‘bidding’ when war would end. Starting with General Haig saying one more push and it would be over by 1918, the German General bidding 1919, the French 1920, then numerous bids being shouted through 40, 45, and on to 70, it then reached 2000, 2010, 2020, and finally 2024 was bid, and there was silence, leaving the audience to ponder when such conflicts will ever end.

The final scene is a simple set piece with the whole cast singing an acapella version of And When They Ask Us is hauntingly simple in its presentation but evocative and sure to send the audience home with so much to ponder and discuss.

The cast, all interestingly, although co-incidentally, from Rose Brufford College, is made up of Tom Benjamin, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Cioma Uma, and Euan Wilson, all of whom stay focused throughout over two and a half hours onstage and are as full of energy at the final curtain as they were in their pre-performance banter with the audience. Director Nicky Allpress, Movement Director Adam Haigh, and Musical Director Ellie Verkerk should all be applauded for providing the vehicle for the cast to display their considerable talents; there are a number who I will be following as they progress through their careers.

The Cast 
Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
The Cast Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown
Featuring over 30 iconic songs such as Pack Up Your Troubles, Roses of Picardy, and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Oh What a Lovely War is a rollicking razor-sharp satire that lances the folly of war and the loss of life in human conflict, all through a deceitfully jolly, raucous show of singing and dancing. A show that should be high up on everyone’s list of shows to see for its take on the sense of warfare and its impact on the common person.

Oh What a Lovely War is on at Leeds Playhouse until 27th March.
Then on tour, visiting
Darlington 28th to 30th March and Theatre Royal Wakefield 30th April to 1st May