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Oh What a Lovely War

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The current London import of Broadway’s The Scottsboro Boys tells its chastening tale of a major but previously mostly forgotten instance of 1930s American injustice by recasting it as a minstrel show, which simultaneously distances and amplifies the shock of its story. A similar theatrical feat was pulled off more than 50 years ago by Joan Littlewood and her Stratford East troupe when they created Oh What a Lovely War, which tells the appalling story of the human cost of the First World War by way of a Pierrot show, much beloved of Edwardians but now otherwise extinguished from the theatrical repertoire.

It is a canny way of both conveying the remoteness of those events, yet giving them a fresh theatrical charge by being presented as a kind of historical entertainment. Terry Johnson’s constantly playful yet deeply poignant production honours the conflicting impulses of this show’s creation expertly. It starts jauntily to seduce you by entertaining you. But in the darkening second act, as casualties mount up with a sickening inevitability, it becomes a sorrowful meditation of the awful human cost of this conflict.

It also acts as a neat companion piece to The Ruling Class, currently being revived in the West End, as an illustration of how the ‘officer’ class sent their charges into battles where advances were shockingly small against the loss of life incurred an electronic board over the stage relays the statistics.

The show, part history lesson, part pageant, and part wartime jukebox musical, is full of powerful juxtapositions of mood and memories. A superb ensemble cast bring this tale of death to shattering life, led by Ian Reddington as a kind of MC and Wendi Peters who leads a rousing audience singalong.

  • Theatre Royal, Stratford East
  • January 29-February 7, then touring to May 30, PN February 3
  • Authors: Joan Littlewood, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles
  • Director: Terry Johnson
  • Musical director: Peter White
  • Choreographer: Lynne Page
  • Design: Lez Brotherstoni set/costume, Paul Pyant lighting, Mike Walker sound, Ian William Galloway video
  • Technical: Lindah Balfour company stage manager, Paul Hennessy production manager, Jim Arnold casting director, Mike Dixon musical supervisor/orchestrations
  • Cast: Ian Reddington, Wendi Peters, Christopher Villiers, Alice Bailey Johnson, Marcus Ellard, Alex Giannini, Richard Glaves, Lauren Hood, Matthew Malthouse, WIlliam Oxborrow, Mark Prendergast, Dan Reilly, Neil Stewart, Bleu Woodward
  • Producers: Judy Lloyd, Matthew Mitchell, David Mirvish, Mark Norman, Cheryl Norman, Theatre Royal Stratford East
  • Running time: 2hrs 30mins

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The Stage
The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.