Oh What a Lovely War
Watlington Village Hall
May 29th 2014
As one pushes relentlessly through the ‘Oliver’s’, ‘Oklahoma’s’ and ‘Calendar Girls’, just once in a while you get to see a title that really doesn't get out much at all. In fairness to the other titles I have just slighted ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ is a strange piece and the main reason it seldom gets to see the light of day is that it doesn’t sell very well. Having said that, as I took my seat at the beautifully decorated (Cyril Pike take a bow) Watlington Village Hall the auditorium was looking quite full!
Because this is something of a minority piece it will stand a little explanation so this is how I would describe it. I personally believe it is best categorised as a play with music as the musical content consists of a large number of army songs from World War One and the versions adapted by those who sang them. There is no original score and all those patriotic often self-deprecating songs are interspaced between historical fact and historical judgement. The whole production takes the form of an end-of-pier Pierrot show with more than a hint of the surreal about it, with the costumes rarely changing but the hundreds of characters swap hats to declare who they are. Sounds bizarre? It is, but it actually works incredibly well and as a vehicle to highlight the stupidity and futility of war, and those who make it … it is priceless.
The set (designed by Rob Cumming) was excellent. Every inch the end-of-pier with enough on to act as a colourful backdrop, but not so much as to prevent plenty of bodies on the stage. Costumes (Judy Parsons and Lesley Judd) were amazing with consistent white clowns for the men and Pierette styled dresses for the ladies supplemented by some very authentic headwear. I was amused by the photos in the programme showing the army style haircuts undertaken by some of the young male chorus and whilst that sacrifice may have seemed great, the overall effect was worth the pain. Lighting was unobtrusive and Barry Ayres clearly had plenty to do on the sound so I expect he was grateful for that.
This production is such a team game it just doesn’t seem right to decide who was a lead and who was supporting cast. Not that I feel I could really work it out anyway. Everyone had too much to do for me to fathom it. The ladies chorus were very strong and, with not that much to do, showed considerable dedication in doing it so very well. Great to see Jane Pearce back on stage and songs from Megan Abbott, Debbie Hiles, Ellie Fradley and Gemma Laing all hit the spot with the precision of an Enfield 303. Although every member of that female line put in a first rate shift with ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts’ still giving me nightmares to this day. Thanks a lot Debbie Hiles and Georgia Smith I hold you responsible!
The men were not in the slightest outdone and were universally excellent with Richard Abel on top form as Field Marshall Haig, and Steve Brooks and Matt Kerslake making a wonderful job of the hilarious bayonet practice scene. Much of the men’s singing was in chorus and I was more than a little moved at the level of commitment and professionalism shown by some of the younger boys. It’s one thing to have your hair cut off, but to back it up with a strong, often moving performance is altogether something else.
The penultimate paragraph honours almost got shared throughout the cast but for a number of reasons I have decided they should go to the omnipresent Allan Lord, who seemed to be having the time of his life. I was a little hard on him after the pantomime but I have nothing but praise for him this time as he swept from one character to another changing hats and accents as he went with not even a suggestion of missing a syllable, let alone a word. It was a masterful, compelling performance that encompassed the very spirit of this production and, dare I say it, this United Kingdom as it was in 1914.
An incredibly moving piece of theatre that had me in tears several times. As the numbers of dead and wounded were shown on the screen I still, after all these years, find it incredible, horrifying and actually increasingly difficult to comprehend. For me the most moving part were the names of the local fallen that opened the show. I just wanted to clap as the roll ended but was so misty eyed I missed my moment. Warmest congratulations to Director David Brammer, Musical Director Kate Mould and Choreographer Penny Cooke for a quality product that was difficult to fault, although I suspect that if the subject matter did not interest you, much of the production might have dragged, but as we commemorate 100 years since that ghastly day in 1914 I was captivated throughout.
Stephen P E Hayter
(District Representative NODA Easter Region – Area 4 North)
'Oh What a Lovely War' is the story of WWI told through comedy, drama and song. It's a difficult play to produce as it walks the fine line between humour and tragedy, and deals with a vast and complicated subject.
Luckily, director David Brammer and his cast did a fantastic job, respectfully commemorating those who lost their lives while also using the play's satirical elements to comment on the absurdity of war.
The unfolding historical drama is set against a series of contemporary songs, which give the show a real 'end of the pier' feel, despite the darker themes. The realisation that so many men died during the campaign was a particularly sobering one and – as you might expect – the humour in this show is pitch black.
At the beginning, this dark comedy caught the audience off-guard and some of the early jokes fell a little flat. However, the skilled ensemble cast deftly manoeuvred between comic skits and moments of high pathos, and any unevenness in tone was quickly dispelled within the first fifteen minutes of the show.
It was nice to see some of the younger Players taking on solos. Ellie Fradley sang 'Hitchy-Koo' with great style, while Bertie Ellison and Ben Robinson did well as young soldiers, each singing their own number about the struggle between fear and patriotism. It was also lovely to see Georgia Smith take on a more substantial role, and her rendition of the tongue twisting song 'Sister Suzie's Sewing Shirts' was great fun!
Established members of the company also got a chance to shine. Debbie Hiles gave a strong performance of the classic 'Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser' and Megan Abbott dazzled as a flirty nightclub singer trying to raise conscription rates. It was wonderful to hear Irene Whitehouse and Mike Cooke in their duet 'Roses of Picardy', while Gemma Laing's subtle, understated performance of 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' was a poignant highlight.
As always, the acting from the Players was top-notch. Richard Abel gave a great performance as bumbling General Haig, with Adrian Baxter as his long-suffering lieutenant. Steve Brooks made a formidable drill sergeant, while Mike Cooke, Leslie Judd and Allan Lord were excellent as war-mongering generals and heartless capitalists.
Hugh Pearce provided an engaging and entertaining presence as the narrator, and his conversational style was incredibly appealing.
Meanwhile, Watlington Players veteran Matthew Kerslake provided comic relief, with some great moments of physical comedy, as he played a loveable, incompetent soldier.
Supporting roles were played by Jenny Baxter, Katy Beeton, Lucy Beeton, Fiona Bennett, Penny Cooke, Tracy Cumming, Jane Pearce, and Amy Sims, with excellent choreography by Penny Cooke and strong musical direction from Kate Mould. The costumes were beautifully made by Judy Parsons, and the lighting and technical design – by Barry Ayres – was imaginative and immersive.
Much of the historical information in the show was provided by the Downham Market British Legion Club, and the statistics really gave the audience cause for contemplation long after the music had died away.
All in all, 'Oh What a Lovely War' was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment, and a fitting commemoration of WWI.