by Debbie Cannon
Devised by Joan Littlewood’s populist Theatre Workshop Company and first performed in 1963, Oh, What A Lovely Way comprises a series of scenes depicting the people’s experience of World War I, with an emphatically left-wing, anti-establishment agenda. Add in the fact that the original script has these scenes presented by a seaside Pierrot company of the period, interspersed with popular songs, some dark satire and a good deal of audience interaction, and it’s clear that it’s a challenging piece to perform and communicate.
This young ensemble meets these challenges with confidence and aplomb. The actors are uniformly splendid, with some stand-out performances. They move and sing well, and handle the mime, improvisation, and physicality required by the piece, together with the sudden shifts between comedy and poignancy, with a skill and professionalism beyond their years. In particular, they embrace the music hall style presentation and audience interaction it requires with great style and success.
There are some lovely touches in the choices of props and set, such as the soldiers’ helmets used as footlights, and the two ‘bathing screens’ done out in seaside deckchair stripes, behind which the cast hide and store props. Other staging decisions are less successful. Instead of having the stark facts and figures of the war projected onto a screen, as suggested by the original script, the cast hold up placards at the back of the stage, which to be honest would probably have more impact if they were bigger and were paraded directly in front of the audience.
There are also slight problems with sight-lines and sound. With the audience around three sides of the thrust stage, and no real ‘backstage’ area, the seats at the furthest end of the side rows are facing into the space behind the screens. The cast do work hard to include audience at the sides, but the prime seats are still very much at the front. There is live music on stage throughout the show, really skilfully performed by cast members moving effortlessly from stage to instruments. However, sometimes the volume of the music overwhelmed the singing voices it was accompanying.
From a purist point of view, it does feel as though the sheer vitriol of Littlewood’s condemnation of war has been watered down somewhat. The cast clearly grasp the tragedy of World War I, but less so the raw outrage of war per se. Possibly as a consequence of this, you can’t help thinking that some of the performances could have been a little bigger, the caricatures of inept generals and profiteering industrialists more grotesque. This is a production which aims to please and engage rather than provoke. In entertaining, of course, it still reminds its audience of the stark horror of the war. And a quick glance around the auditorium on the day we attended made clear that the production was both entertaining its audience and communicating its essential message with great success.
We attended with a nine year old and it’s fair to say that on the basis of the inclusion of clearly audible swearing, this would be better categorised as a PG than a U.
This is an strong production, with plenty of fine comedy and real engagement with the audience by a very talented and energetic company. We were torn between awarding three and four stars, but based on the impressive ensemble performance opted for four. It deserves to be seen.