Oh What a Lovely War
Back in 1963 a sensation occurred on stage when Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop company performed O, What A Lovely War at the Stratford East theatre.
Rather than the patriotic plays, films and books spawned by the Second World War this production was the first to look back at the 1914-1918 conflict and question if it really was the war described in history books.
The show was in the style of a Victorian or Edwardian music hall evening and used a mixture of acting, music, slides and news ticker tapes to show their version of the war – very much the “lions lead by donkeys” ideal.
The play was so controversial that the censor of the time wasn’t sure that it was suitable for transfer to London’s West End and it took royal approval from HRH Princess Margaret before the transfer was allowed. A film was later made, although there were some changes made for this – not all approved by the Theatre Workshop!
To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the start of the war the play has been revived at the Stratford East Theatre and I was lucky enough to see it in the week before it closed.
It was a real rollercoaster of an afternoon – it is terribly funny in places, but then in the next scene I found myself on the verge of tears. The scene I found most shocking was one set early in the war when the first casualties were arriving back in London from the Front and while ambulances collected the officers the men had to make their own way to the hospitals.
The dot matrix ticker tape stating casualties and the ‘gains’ really did bring home the losses. To see that tens of thousands of men could be lost in the first few hours of a battle that then lasted months and gained only 100 yards of ground was mind-blowing.
In 1963 the play was seen as cutting edge and satirical and absolutely not sentimental at all. In 2014 I didn’t find this to be quite the case. I’m not sure if it is because there have been lots of other anti-war books/programmes/films or if it is because WW1 is now definitely history and not living memory. It was funny but it certainly had an almost safe, nostalgic feel.
I enjoyed my afternoon a great deal, I came away with some new information and some new perspectives on the war but I didn’t find it as satirical as I thought I would. I do have a terrible earworm for the song “Oh! What A Lovely War” however…
(both pictures were taken by me & photography of the auditorium before the show was allowed )