THERE’S something unutterably sad about watching a bunch of teenagers recreating war, but we have to face the fact that buried deep in us is a desire to glorify our attempts to get rid of each other in the most hideous ways.
Oh! What a Lovely War is, thank goodness, an anti-war piece conjured more than half a century ago by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and standing proudly as an emblem of the resurgence of a theatre – the Theatre Royal in Stratford, East London – and the fight of a younger generation to put an end to a gung-ho delight in the supremacy of waging war. Richard Attenborough’s cinema version is the one that most of us know of the piece and indeed it’s less often seen now, its own relevance lessening the further we travel in time from the conflict itself and given that the last Tommy has been dead some years.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make for good theatre and the King’s Company make the best of the piece. An ensemble evening, it requires an ensemble performance and each and every one of tonight’s actors gives it everything they have. Never one to do anything by halves, choreographer Natasha Hobbs once more demands high standards from the company, her geometric stage usage coming into sharp and effective focus in The Bells of Hell. But that’s only one outstanding number: throughout the musical her mark is everywhere and with it comes the high regard she deserves from dancers willing her to take the credit for their aching limbs.
Laura Dixon’s direction is deft and strategic. It can’t be easy, summoning a feeling for a conflict waged a century ago amongst a company whose grandfathers’ grandfathers were barely old enough to fire a gun for their country. The pit band, under the tight direction of Richard Walmsley, brought an end of the pier jollity to some well-known tunes, their pace and verve never slackening by so much as a semitone.
The evening’s laurels go though to the acting company of 29, each giving as much as was required, and more, to ensure the audience got the message loud and clear. Freddie Bowles as the MC took the reins with assuredness; he never wavered and he brought a tower of strength to a steep learning curve. Bravo.
Paige Grey’s sauciness in I’ll Make a Man of You was just the right side of hectic and she and the rest of the company imbued the piece with enough irony to make us realise what a lie it was and how easily our young men would be seduced into heading off into the trenches with no thought for their own safety, to prove that they would and could be counted as men only with the din of battle in their ears.
The idiocy of it all was summed up by Pierre Taffara-Cox as he roared unintelligible commands to uncomprehending men. Lions led by donkeys indeed.
Finally, for any message, we need only look at the names of the twenty-five Old Eleans who never returned home, commemorated in the piece’s final moments. It’s little wonder, given our basest instinct to each other damage, that the entire company are dressed as … clowns. A superb evening. May we never forget.