By Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast
Directed by Chris Baldock
Canberra REP production at Theatre 3 to 10 March
Reviewed by Len Power 23 February 2018
Developed by Joan Littlewood and her ensemble at the Theatre Workshop in London’s East End in 1963, ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ presents World War 1 as a theatre war game by a troupe of comic performers. Littlewood, who detested the colour khaki and other military trappings, decided on the use of pierrot costumes for the company. The costumes were to provide an ironic contrast with the more realistic hats and props of the war era.
There was nothing funny about World War 1 and any production of this play treads a fine line between making fun of the war and the shocking death toll to point up the absolute horror of it all. Director, Chris Baldock’s troupe of mostly young actors performs a rough and ready sketch version of the war, playing multiple characters and singing songs of the era.
Unfortunately, in spite of a director who’s shown he can do dazzling work in the past and an enthusiastic, bright group of performers who work at a frantic pace, this production is a puzzling disappointment.
Maybe the play itself is past its use by date. It feels too long and laboured with some scenes continuing on well after we’ve got the point. The set designed by the director lacks atmosphere and it was tiresome watching the two ugly towers being moved about awkwardly.
There seems to be no reason, other than as a nod to the original production, for the wearing of pierrot costumes which are derived from Commedia dell’arte and pantomime and usually indicate a certain playing style. Here, the costumes and makeup just give the cast a bland look and remove any chance of individuality in performance.
To explain the progress of the war, the cast play a multitude of nationalities and heads of state using distinguishing hats and other items. They shout too much and their diction isn’t clear enough to catch everything that is being said and we’re often not certain who they are representing.
A moment in the show that worked well was the Christmas Eve scene in the trenches where the opposing sides reach out to each other and share a Christmas drink. It works because the cast played as real people at that point, not caricatures.
Music by Ewan and his onstage orchestra was well played and sung by the cast.
This was an important play in its day but with this uninvolving production it’s hard to see why.
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.