Jeremy Malies in Eastbourne
4 November 2023
As a satire on military conflicts of all kinds, Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War! doesn’t have to try hard for contemporary relevance. Blackeyed Theatre’s troupe of six give a sense of spontaneity with their backchat that would please Littlewood and her creative team who insisted on the importance of a devised approach and developed the piece primarily during rehearsals. It must be difficult to sustain an evening that has no real narrative flow and is merely a set of vignettes.
Alice E. Meyer (foreground).
Photo credit: Clive Elkington.
The back-projected tickertape captions here by Clive Elkington (again pure Brecht that would delight Littlewood’s shade) pull us up short with statistics (thousands of men dead without a yard of terrain being gained) and extraordinary individual lives such as former boxing champion Georges Carpentier serving as a combat pilot for the French.
Director Nicky Allpress gives due weight to the Commedia dell’arte Pierrots beloved by the show’s original creators with Tom Crabtree even keeping the lower part of his clown costume on for the rest of the evening. And Allpress is “Brechty-Brecht” (to use Littlewood’s label for herself) with the characters breaking the fourth wall to perhaps say that they are looking forward to the next scene or asking for our verdict. Every piece of music and sound effect is produced in full view of the audience. I admired scrupulous details such as morse code messages being picked out on a glockenspiel in Ellie Verkerk’s musical direction.
It should be remembered that “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” had been composed only a few years before the outbreak of the war and was the equivalent of a pop song. Verkerk, who is a bandleader and has worked with Punchdrunk, ensures it is not mawkish nor a museum piece. Her take on the songs with hymn-like content is seductive and had me gripped. Unable to play so much as comb and paper, I envy multi-instrumentalists and noted both Chioma Uma and Alice E. Meyer taking a turn on piano as well as playing brass and strings.
I fancied I saw Alan Valentine’s lighting design pick out a minaret shape on Victoria Spearing’s set in order to suggest the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The company’s programme notes debunk the simplistic “Lions led by donkeys” verdict and present a more objective view with this balance percolating through the production. Real wrath is reserved for the armaments tycoons who congratulate themselves on having prolonged the war. Uma plays a character who smirks at the thought that she has resold German-produced barbed wire to the Allies such that German troops end up entangled on it! In less skilful hands this scene can come across as dated Marxism but Allpress makes it rightly provocative.
Photo credit: Clive Elkington.
Cast members rarely leave the stage unless they are speaking from an unseen German trench or lobbing projectiles at Allied soldiers. The direction brings the actors through tricky pieces of physical comedy such as “the bayonet lunge” which could easily descend into leaden slapstick. Equally, the cast negotiates the linguistic demands of a scene in which exact replicas of ludicrous conspiracy theories or propaganda (now there is something topical!) spread through English, French and German-speaking society. And there is much that compels out-loud laughter, notably Christopher Arkeston as Field Marshal Haig: “I ask thee for victory, God, before the Americans arrive.”
Any reservations? Jerome Kern’s “And When They Ask Us” didn’t quite soar as I expected but audience numbers were disappointingly low which may have affected the overall vocal sound for the worse: empty seats don’t help projection. But sparse attendance in the stalls didn’t stop us belting out “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts” with precision and gusto.
There is plenty of smut in the original and it was pleasing to see it remain in these PC times. As a senior British officer, Arkeston milks much comedy from his character’s refusal to use anything other than ghastly schoolboy French even if crucial communication is compromised. The company work together tightly in scenes such as the shouting-down of Uma as a pacifist speaker.
The team at Stratford East created this show early in 1963. In October of the previous year, nuclear war had loomed with the Cuban Missile Crisis. As this production continues its UK tour, a human-made global catastrophe is as likely as at any time since Kennedy and Khrushchev waited for the other to blink. Put this with the very best productions of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End or Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie and last year’s remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. This excellent production (upcoming tour details here) is salutary and timely.