Adrian Hilton is a conservative academic, theologian and educationalist.
“And here’s a donkey!” bawls Shaun Prendergast, the magnetic Master of Ceremonies in the revived 1960s musical satire Oh What A Lovely War, now playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. And as we await the predictable screen projections of Sir John French or Field Marshal Douglas Haig or any of the other warmongering jackasses and dolts Joan Littlewood so clearly despised, up pops a picture of Michael Gove, to the girly sniggering and overblown applause of the audience.
It’s a cheesy swipe at the Education Secretary – from a theatre company and director clearly irked by his assertion that this show spawned a distorting genre which seeks to denigrate patriotism, honour and courage, preferring instead to see the Great War as “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”. I disagreed with him on that, and wrote to that effect in a previous column. But the ongoing Gove-grief frames the riotous anti-war politics of this show, reminding us that Joan Littlewood was unashamedly political in her art, and calculatedly “developed the left-wing Theatre Workshop” (quote from Stratford East press release) to help propagate her socialist-pacifist worldview. I guess this revival – being utterly faithful to her vision – might so justify a bit of contemporary anti-Toryism. But it’s a jarring dissonance at the overture, and one which I hope the director might revisit.
For the moment, though, I want to set the politics aside and applaud Terry Johnson’s undeniably gripping and often touching production. It is absolutely right that Oh What A Lovely War should be re-staged in this dedicated centennial year – and also in commemoration of the show’s own 50th anniversary, and beneath that same proscenium arch where the Theatre Workshop was first mobilised – if only to permit us to re-live what the great Ken Tynan prophesied in his 1963 review would come to be seen as a ground-breaking moment in our national theatrical history. “Others write plays, direct them or act in them,” he intoned. “Miss Littlewood alone ‘makes theatre’.” And this is a revolution victoriously revisited: it is respectful of her triumph, reverent to her memory, and it allows a more sanguine generation to weigh the complex issues and shifting perceptions since Littlewood first bared her subversive breast to the world.
Lez Brotherston’s evocative end-of-pier design deviates little from the playground pierrot show of the original production: the twinkling fairground lights are strewn with patriotic bunting around the auditorium, and there’s more white polyester than khaki. The ensemble dons a myriad of hats, beards, belts and tunics (and, in one instance, a pot plant) to indicate a change of character. But basically the politicians are all buffoons, the generals are donkeys, and our boys – casually sacrificed by the million – are the heroic lions.
And this is the message bashed out in every scene: the moment Johnny Jones’s smooching idyll ‘Row, Row, Row’ gives way to the bombastic overtures of Europe’s fermenting grievances, the lights dim and the war games begin. Little Serbia is stirring, France is fretting, but ‘Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser’, and now it’s time for John Bull to hit. But don’t worry; it’ll all be over by Christmas.
Except, of course, it isn’t. The trenches are soon awash with the blood of our finest and bravest, and the slaughter goes on for what must have felt like an eternity of sniping, shell bombardment and choking gas. ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’, sings a hauntingly beautiful tenor to herald the 1914 Christmas truce. And it’s in these most intimate trench scenes where this production finds its emotional authenticity. No matter how showy the politics or superficial its grasp of the economics of war, the moment you hear the banter of our boys and hum along with their catchy ditties, you sit uneasily in your seat (if not shed a tear) as the overhead LED ticker-display reports the progress: “Somme battle ends… Total loss: 1,332,000 men… Gain: nil.”
Oh What A Lovely War was devised as a collaborative creative effort, and Johnson gives us a perfectly drilled ensemble, energised by Lynne Page’s zippy choreography. Mike Dixon’s musical direction is the mood-core of the show: his band isn’t shunted stage-right; it is up-front and integral to the creation of every interlude, and Dixon himself is party to the quips and banter.
Shaun Prendergast’s exceptional M.C. shifts effortlessly from Dads-Army charm to devilish wit and swagger. I say ‘effortlessly’, but his voice takes one hell of a hammering as he rants, blusters and orates for hours right up to the gods. His Sergeant Major is a squawking discharge of total incoherence, and yet by pitch, pause and subtle inflection, he makes all the babble and gibberish gleefully comprehensible. Prendergast’s M.C. is the show’s audacious kingpin, captain and guide, around whom the rest of the troupe exquisitely prances and pivots.
And Caroline Quentin is delectable. There’s a lot of Music Hall gaiety in her buxom appeals for recruits – ‘I’ll make a man of any one of you’, she strokes and seduces. And there’s more than a hint of panto in her sing-a-long-a-tongue-twister ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers’. But she abandons this lyrical trivia and moves to real depths with her portrayal of Mrs Pankhurst, pleading the cause of pacifism with gusto, and warning us that The Times is spreading nothing but propaganda and misinformation (and I’m relieved here that Johnson resisted the temptation to flash up a mug shot of Rupert Murdoch).
Michael Simkins (French) and Ian Bartholomew (Haig) are class-act donkeys – aloof and indifferent; schmoozing and waltzing to their own self-advancement; baying at their subordinates; bellowing down the phone their incessant orders of attrition. And then Haig pleads zealously to the Almighty for victory “before the Americans arrive”. The bloody carnage chills the sane mind: the dead are rotting in the mud, awaiting Christian burial. But the demonised lunatics are in charge. There are few more disturbing moments in all the chronicles of theatrical war history than Haig’s grotesque dance to ‘The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling’. Ian Bartholomew conceitedly inhabits the unfeeling world of the zombie. The ensuing mass destruction is a plague of apocalyptic judgment.
But back briefly to the politics. When the pierrots have finished their bitter frolicking and the satirical score of this lefty war fades out, the actors pay their own moving tribute to the millions of Tommy-heroes whose stories inspired the show: age shall not weary them, we reflect; nor the years condemn. You laugh and sing, drop your jaw and shed a tear. The curtain call begins, and the audience claps and cheers. But barely five seconds into the ovation, Terry Johnson decides that Shaun Prendergast will get all didactic and patronisingly reproachful. He boorishly gesticulates for quiet and delivers a homily to impress upon us that these “war games” continue even to the present day. He probably has in mind Afghanistan and Iraq, if not Kuwait and the Falklands.
Like the Gove-baiting, Oh What A Lovely War simply doesn’t need this bungling moralising: the art speaks eloquently for itself.