Director - Suzanne Hall
Musical Director - Peter Theobald
By Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop
Peter Barber, James Butler, Kevin Denson, Christopher Gleed, Stephen Gleed, Adrian Hickford, Dan Hickson, Hamish McDonald, Simon Meanwell-Ralph, Iain Steel
Cressida Bullough, Anne Croudass, Louise Hodson, Katie Hickson, Anne McDonald, Helen O’Sullivan, Liz Petley-Jones, Emma Jane Smith, Denise Truscott, Lucy Whiteman
SSAFA, raised a total of over £3,600 in collections and a large donation from Winchester Rotary.
The show really started in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, where members of the cast, in costume and carrying large props, negotiated their way through the gathering crowd. This was part of director Suzanne Hall’s vision of the production as that of a touring company in the Music Hall tradition. This was entirely appropriate for the structure of Oh What A Lovely War, which is really a themed variety show. Nevertheless, it’s not often one is greeted outside the box office by someone carrying a lamp post.
The set design was appropriately simple: most of the stage occupied by a raked raised area, with, effectively, an apron stage at the front and aisles at either side, down which the cast made their entrances and exits, frequently marching. The downstage corners of the raised area had slots into which the large props were inserted for the rapid creation of a temporary set - so the lamp post for a street corner, or two posts and a cord for back-yard washing line. Small pieces of furniture - mostly stools and the occasional artificial leg - were carried on and off by the cast and used to create different locations. Costumes were largely generic, with tunics, hats and the like donned to give indications of character in some of the scenes.
The result was a very slick production, moving from one song or sketch to the next at tremendous pace and imparting a coherence to the whole which can be lacking from the show. (I have said before that the weakness of Oh What A Lovely War is in its roots as a piece of devised theatre; it brings in multiple perspectives but lacks a controlling mind. In this case we had a directorial vision imparting the unity.)
Whilst there are occasionally specific roles (Peter Barber playing Kaiser Wilhelm, Adrian Hickford as General Haig), it was an ensemble piece, with groups forming and dissolving as the show progressed. The singing was lovely. With a group of British soldiers in a trench on the apron stage, we heard the voices of their German counterparts from offstage, singing Stille Nacht - a haunting moment. Then there was the church parade, with most of the cast on stage for the military parodies of hymns, all beautifully harmonised. The choreography was good and varied - at one point Peter Theobald and the band played what sounded like a Marvin Hamlisch arrangement for a ragtime dance; later, the grave digging party singing The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling morphed into lively morris dancers.
As always, amidst all the ironic humour, there is a dreadful, serious core to the show, with the statistics of the battles being projected onto the back of the stage throughout. From a previous production, I came away with an abiding image of the shooting party - a leisured discussion amongst the captains of industry who were profiteering from the war by selling munitions and materials to all sides. This time, I was hit hardest by one of the final sketches, a group of French soldiers offered the choice between being shot for disobeying orders or going to the front like lambs to the slaughter. They followed their officer, bleating.
HOT on the heels of their previously thoroughly enjoyable High Society, WMOS did not disappoint with this foray into more serious work. This show is not easy to strike the right balance with and I did feel uncomfortable at times throughout the evening, showing that the directorial flare with the satirical messages were getting through. The end of Act 1 was particularly well presented and I smiled with amusement, then realised why I was smiling and that perhaps I should not have at the baa baa baa of the soldier sheep following orders that had such catastrophic consequences. It is that kind of intended juxtaposition that makes this show by turn funny, sad, informative and shocking.
The Director's notes were very firm that this was an ensemble piece so I am not going to name individual performers as all were excellent. The pace was slick and the use of basic scenery such as stools and small props kept it moving. I loved the use of the flat raised level and associated slotted-in washing lines, lamp posts etc. Very clever and an idea filed away by me for the future. The barricades and trenches were evoked by clever use of said stools very carefully lit in red and a covert use of smoke screen. The lighting of this show was so well done generally I should add.
I liked the fact the back projections were informative without being too intrusive. The statistics were alarming but were pitched very accurately against the scenes. The group of strolling players idea worked perfectly against the blank stage and due deference was given at certain points to the information being provided by a clear stage or pauses.
The attention to detail was a highlight of High Society (the bobbing of the rope as if it was being moved by the boat comes to mind) and this show is similarly thought through with everyone moving their own piece of furniture with what looked like consummate ease (not a member of stage crew to be seen). The related colours of the costumes worked well, the gents’ false moustaches (behaving slightly better than those of the ladies when impersonating gentlemen), and the sound balance, with subtle use of appropriate music not overpowering, un-miked and therefore feedback-proof cast, were plusses for me.
The songs were put across with suitable vigour, verve or poignancy. I liked the hymns being sung correctly by some cast but more earthy versions being carried through by others. The band was excellent too.
All in all a classy evening and on Armistice Day a reflective reminder of the horror men can put other men through - but told with such wit, respect and panache. WMOS should be very proud of their achievement and I wish them well for the week ahead.