Sunday, February 25, 2018

Oh, What A Lovely War! - Canberra Rep

Review by John Lombard

Some of the most emotional moments in “Oh, What A Lovely War!” come from a PowerPoint presentation. 

As the clowns of the Merry Roosters Pierrot Troupe cavort and blunder their way through World War I, sobering facts and statistics about the conflict are projected on the rear wall: “Average life of a machine gunner under attack on the Western Front: 4 minutes.”

Joan Littlewood’s satire of World War I tells bleak history as a vaudeville revue, using absurdity to communicate tragedy.  Director Chris Baldock and choreographer Ylaria Rogers pack the performance with an abundance of ideas, everything from human puppets getting their invisible strings tangled to homefront sirens wooing the audience to enlist.

While there were a lot of good physical ideas, they did not always tell the story effectively.  The human puppets sequence was ambitious and entertaining, but an odd choice for a scene that was about miscommunication - especially when it would have been a perfect fit for one of the scenes that explored power and manipulation.  Sometimes, the clowning felt imposed on the script rather than an attempt to express it.

Between thick accents and some poor articulation, it was hard to follow the extremely dense narrative.  The mounting miseries and follies began to blend together, with the second act becoming a sludge of grief. 

But even so the play was often very powerful.  One particular highlight was a dramatisation of the famous Christmas armistice, a moment where the comedy and grief in the play came together as something transcendent.  A short scene where spies clown and bumble before the outbreak of war also captured the play’s fusion of absurdity and menace.

The dirty Union Jack set by director Baldock was excellent, except that the crucial rear projection was tucked into a small space almost as an afterthought.  The PowerPoint itself was of a strikingly poor quality, presenting grave facts with the gloss of an apathetic high school assignment.

Helen Drum’s clown costumes quite deliberately stripped the performers of their individuality, making the performers interchangeable and disposable.  However they also displayed unique talents, whether a beautiful singing voice or acrobatic skill, and the group had tremendous energy.

Musicals are by their nature demanding, requiring performers who can sing, dance and act.  This musical makes the additional demand that the performers also be deft clowns and acrobats: inevitably the production sometimes stretched the cast beyond their skill.  The mostly young cast uniformly approached the challenges of this demanding show with a high level of commitment, and messy or cloudy actions were balanced by genuinely beautiful moments of physicality.

The melodious music in the show - much of it drawn from period songs - built a contrast between the blithe home front and the horrifying battlefield.

Baldock’s “Oh What A Lovely War!” is a production that does not quite live up to its ambition, but is still both entertaining and moving, although the japery does give way to a deep seriousness about the cost of war.  I would have loved to see more of the Australian story of the war as well, but the Aussies only get footnote mentions.  Not always an easy play to experience, but a unique concept tackled with gusto.