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Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Oh What A Lovely War Company. Picture: Nobby Clark
Oh What A Lovely War Company. Picture: Nobby Clark

Review: Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Epic musical satire still shell-shocks audiences, writes Lesley Bellow

“And when they ask us, we’ll never tell them…”

The Tommies’ private hell during the Great War was something they dared not share. Their pride, captured in the tender final song of Oh What A Lovely War, broke theatre-goers’ hearts when the musical played the Theatre Royal, Stratford East 50 years ago – and it still does today.

It is a dark musical which juxtaposes the foot-soldiers’ suffering against the greedy generals and moneymakers, lunging from slapstick humour to utter despair.

There’s a fast-moving, end-of-the-pier summer show atmosphere that arrives in the shape of a Pierott company mingling with the audience before the show, cracking gags, gossiping and adding to the music-hall feel of the handsome, historic theatre.

The clowns include MC Shaun Prendergast who later dodges from clown to a shrieking, manic sergeant as the calamity of wartime errors begins to take its toll. He certainly earns his money.

The skilful cast captures the mood of the time by playing a motley crowd who mix up their costumes to highlight the chaos and confusion of war. The Pierotts reappear with bayonets, then as American profiteers, generals and war-weary Tommies in sometimes lively, sometimes unsettling scenes.

In the background, original images of war are projected on-screen showing carnage on the battlefields while the numbers of deaths run across an illuminated electronic board. These hi-tech props reinforce the enormity of the losses being played out on stage.

BBC producer Charles Chilton wrote Oh What A Lovely War after he went to Arras and couldn’t understand how his father could have no known grave.

Now, of course, we know the real figures: 10 million dead, 20 million wounded and seven million missing – the majority either shot, diseased, blown up or missing in the mud of the Somme, Passchendaele and dozens more battlefields across France and Flanders.

The soldiers’ songs neatly thread the story together. It was originally adapted by the visionary theatre maker Joan Littlewood in the 60s and the charm of the musical comes from staying pretty much true to the original score.

Caroline Quentin (Men Behaving Badly) is the star name and she is comfortable in every role – singing her heart out, joining in the knockabout humour and holding the audience captive during a fine pacifist movement speech.

Director Terry Johnson’s most powerful scenes include French soldiers refusing to become lambs to the slaughter - their baas getting louder and louder until the men are silenced by gunfire.

The 1914 Christmas truce is haunting as a lone voice singing StilleNacht is heard across No Man’s Land.

As we mark the 100 anniversary, Oh What A Lovely War brings home how little we have learned.

Until March 15 Tickets: 020 8534 0310;stratfordeast.com

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