REVIEW: Oh What a Lovely War, Blackeyed Theatre (Southwark Playhouse, Borough)

If there’s one thing the Great British public love it’s a wartime story, and no historical conflict is more romanticised than World War I. Every November, there is an expectation that the nation engages in a collective display of sentimentality, reflecting fondly on smiling soldiers packing up their troubles as the home fires keep on burning. Remembrance events have become almost a sombre celebration of nostalgic pride, rather than an act of mourning. But perhaps it’s justifiable to wear our poppy tinted glasses given that humankind has lived in peaceful harmony for over a century after the “war to end all wars”….

Similar thoughts were going through the head of Joan Littlewood in 1963. Frustrated by the sense that no lessons had been learned since WWI, Littlewood’s groundbreaking Theatre Workshop set about creating a production that portrayed war as a farce and gave voice to the ordinary soldiers. The result was Oh What a Lovely War; a musical in which the players were presented as pierrots, with the horrors of war juxtaposed against a slapstick interpretation of the military leaders. 60 years later, Blackeyed Theatre have revived this cutting satire, which feels as relevant today as it did in the wake of WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The cast of Oh What a Lovely War. Costume design by Naomi Gibbs. Set design by Victoria Spearing. Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

It’s a fantastic production, performed by an incredibly talented cast of actor-musicians, with director Nicky Allpress absolutely nailing the balance between laugh out loud comedy and devastating satire. Barriers are broken down between the audience and the players from the moment you enter the building, with costumed cast members mingling in the bar and later in the auditorium. Before the war games even begin, we all know that it’s a charade.

It’s both funny and deeply unsettling, with the mood darkening as the show goes on. The use of projected statistics to hammer home the almost unfathomable scale of human loss is incredibly powerful, contrasting effectively with the cheery wartime songs.

Ellie Verkerk’s musical direction is excellent, taking familiar wartime songs and taking us on an atmospheric journey from the early, hopeful stages of the war through the seemingly never-ending trench warfare until Armistice Day. It works well in the intimate space of Southwark Playhouse (Borough) and it really adds to the atmosphere having the cast without microphones.

The cast of Oh What a Lovely War. Costume design by Naomi Gibbs. Set design by Victoria Spearing. Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown.

In such a brilliant ensemble piece, it almost feels wrong to single out an individual performer, but special mention must go to Harry Curley, whose portrayal of an incoherent drill sergeant almost threatens to steal the show. But there are amazing performances all round, with the cast adeptly juggling (occasionally literally) a wide range of roles and instruments.

Overall, Oh What a Lovely War is a stunning satire on the futility of war that remains as relevant now as when it was first written. We can only hope that in another 60 years it will start to feel more of a historical piece.

Oh What a Lovely War plays at Southwark Playhouse from 21 November to 9 December 2023 as part of a UK tour. We received a complimentary press ticket to the performance on Friday 24 November.

Image credit: Alex Harvey-Brown