UKTW: Robert Iles (02Oct03):
Joan Littlewood\'s \'Oh, What a Lovely War!\' always has the potential to be a powerful piece of theatre. By mixing period songs, jokes and World War I statistics and history we are presented with the un-imaginable in a form we can accept. Somehow one feels that a bad production would not only insult the audience but also the over 30 million dead and wounded of the \'War to end all Wars\'. So, whilst it can be immensely enjoyable this is not a piece to take on lightly.
Fortunately, the Mercury Theatre Company, directed by Janice Dunn have done the piece proud and even their opening night, to a packed auditorium, had pace, pathos and moments of real theatricality. The singing and movement were enthusiastic and appropriate to the period and the presence of live musicians on stage was great, indeed the musicians were also part of the acting troupe and several of the other actors stepped in to play instruments - a very versatile ensemble.
The matter of presentation is always an issue with this play. There are many purists that insist that it must be done \"Joan\'s Way\" and that we must be presented with a seamy group of Pierrot\'s doing an end-of-the-pier show and using only minimalist costuming (e.g. appropriate hats) to indicate their roles. This production does not follow those rules and in my opinion this is correct. Times have changed significantly since the show was originally workshopped. There are now very few people who remember the era of 1914-18 and, sadly, few who have even the benefit of handed-down family memories of that era (as the song says, \"we\'ll never tell them, no we\'ll never tell them\") so we cannot assume that the imagery and … will speak directly to today\'s audience, nor should we assume that the audience has studied the original, it is more likely that they have seen the film! Here we have a clean production that uses period costume and feed uniform in slowly until they are in full uniform then edges back into normal clothes as the show finishes. Very effective. Less effective was the replacement of the \'ticker\' information with spoken versions, they were hard to hear and slowed the production down.
The set was superb. It provided the end-of-the-pier feel whilst also providing flexibility that enabled it to become trenches, ballroom and no-mans-land. Indeed, the cast used the whole auditorium well making the space their own.
In all, a good production and a moving evening and such a pleasure to see a regional sell-out!