Oh! What a Lovely War review at Coliseum, Oldham – ‘faithful but flat’
It is salutary to think that the first production of Oh! What a Lovely War was closer the end of First World War, than this production is to that original. By almost a whole decade.
The main reason for the success of Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop production was its principled, working-class savaging of the upper-class patriotic pieties surrounding the war. “After the final scene, one is ready to storm Buckingham Palace and burn down Kensington Barracks,” wrote Kenneth Tynan. So, how does it fare now that its once revolutionary script has become a comfortable bit of English heritage itself?
In Kevin Shaw’s new production for the Oldham Coliseum, the answer is: it varies. In the first half, you really feel the age of the thing. This is, after all, a show that was originally made out of recognisable period-nostalgia from 45 years earlier (an angry Mamma Mia!, if you like). The passing of over 55 more years means that its once-lethal pastiche comedy stylings are so alien that they really can’t communicate anything other than their age. And Shaw’s production resolutely doesn’t adapt a single thing.
All that said, in the second half, the material begins to win through. The blithe monstrosity of Field Marshall Haig (perfectly captured by Jeffrey Harmer) using of his soldiers as cannon fodder is still sickening. Ironically, in this age of drone warfare, it does have the brief effect of making us pleased that such a disastrous ratio of British:enemy combatants has never been as high since. Which I’m pretty sure isn’t the point.