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Review: Oh What a Lovely War (Southwark Playhouse Borough)

Review by Sam Waite


Born partly from co-creator Joan Littlewood’s disdain for war, the musical satire Oh, What a Lovely Wardebuted to strong reviews and a healthy box office, later transferring to the West End, Broadway, and the silver screen. For this 60th anniversary production, closing out its UK tour with a residency at the Southwark Playhouse Borough, Oh What a Lovely War (no comma this time around!) faces a new generation, with the risk of its comedic approach to World War I may not longer offer the same insightful bite.

The show moves chronologically through the events of the war, though without telling a single linear story. A troupe of six actors, dressed and positioned as circus folk, take on an endless parade of roles on both sides of the conflict – accents, mannerisms and gender expression are malleable, as in a more recent wartime comedy.Instead of a firm plotline, a series of sketches and vignettes set throughout the years of warfare are paired with a selection of marching songs, music hall numbers, and recruitment anthems, some more lyrically mocking and all presented in a satirical tone.

Aesthetically, this production is in line with Littlewood’s original vision – Pierrot costumes, chosen in part because of her anti-war sentiments, and also because she hated khaki, leaning into the visual tropes of pantomime and comedia dell’arte. Naomi Gibbs’ costumes are a delight, each distinct and offering a distinct sense of the position each cast member holds within this carnival of comedy. For anyone unclear with the show, their outfits also give a good sense of this being a period piece. Leaning further into the theming, Victoria Spearing’s run-down circus set brings with it an immediate charm in its level of detail, and a slight sense of sadness, looking gloomy and ever so slightly (as far as a tent can be) defeated.

An equal ensemble shares the stage, rarely leaving it for more than a moment – the troupe consists of Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma, and Euan Wilson. Every one of them is a talented and exciting performer, but an unfortunate side effect of the variety show nature of the performance is that no one spends long enough in a distinct enough role to truly shine as an actor. There are highlights, with Uma briefly becoming Emeline Pankhurst with real gusto as the others mock and berate her, and some particularly strong moments of comedy in the show's prologue. Before the show begins, the cast prep for the show, as Mayer flirts her way through the front row and Crabtree slowly and agonising lifts puny weights before flexing a completely limp bicep.

The songs, both the most dated and most effortlessly charming element, are all delivered well, with good voices when called for and character-driven approaches when not. Rousing come-hither “I'll Make a Man Out of You” (famously performed on screen by Dame Maggie Smith) is a real crowd pleaser, and a singalong to the tongue-twisting “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts” keeps the momentum going as act two leans into the oppressive sense of loss that accompanies the latter years of the war. With no microphones and a cast playing the instruments (impressively well) live on stage, musical director Ellie Verkerk and orchestrator Tom Neill have arranged things just so to allow the vocals to never be lost, and for it never to be too obvious that a louder instrument has paused to allow a lyric to be heard.

Nicky Allpress’ direction opts to lean into the sideshow shtick, with the preamble adding a layer of intimacy with the performers before the show truly begins. Things feel hectic, mistakes made by characters feel like genuine slip-ups by the cast themselves, and the sense of mania in the high energy sequences helps to cement the blunter, more tragedy-forward second act. Keeping her cast in constant and energised motion, Allpress keeps a sense of satirical zaniness up until the brilliantly powerful final moments, assuring that even when the scattered stories may leave audience members a little lost, they're still determined to keep up with this cast and what antics they'll get up to next.

This disjointedness and the frequent shift in character and setting can be easy to lose track of, and anyone looking for something more story-focused in terms of a score will likely struggle to connect – still, this is a bold and exciting revival even when the changing times since the original’s run become more apparent. Some jokes are as strong as ever, and some have found new meaning for viewers – a crack about expecting politicians to be gentlemen got a particularly strong laugh on press night. Designed here by Clive Elkington, the projections of wartime footage and statistics are still harrowing, and the sense of separation between the nonsense onstage and the horrors projected above is still deeply affecting.

A worthy and respectful tribute to the original work by Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop, this anniversary production of Oh What a Lovely War proves that the satire is as smart and sharp as it's ever been, even when the change in sensibilities and approaches to crafting a comedic musical become more noticeable. Brilliantly bonkers and as brave now as it was 60 years ago to challenge notions of patriotism and a need for warfare, this Lovely War ought to find new fans of an old favourite.

Oh What a Lovely War plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until December 9th

Photos by Alex Harvey-Brown



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