Review: Oh What A Lovely War at Oldham Coliseum

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Starting in 2014, and no doubt continuing right up until the end of 2018, Britain has been commemorating the centenary of World War 1. The Great War, The War To End All Wars. I have seen some extremely moving tributes both theatrical and musical, and now The Coliseum Theatre in Oldham opens its Autumn season with something which is a little of both, Oh What A Lovely War. A pioneering and daring work in its time, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in London’s Stratford East came up with a dark satire which parodies the war and those in charge of it, commenting on its futility and political motivations through sharp humour and song.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

If this doesn’t sound too hard to imagine and a little lame, then remember this was premiered in 1963 when the constraints of theatre were much more rigid than today, and also that at that time, it was less than 20 years since the end of World War 2, with both The Cold War and The Vietnam War still continuing.

Littlewood uses the songs of the period to great effect, interspersing them throughout with little vignettes as the cast of ten dressed in costumes reminiscent of the old Music Hall Pierrettes take on multifarious characters ranging from civilian, military and political persons from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Russian etc, presenting “the ever popular, ‘War Games'”.

To aid us all in this, since this is a history lesson on four years of fighting on a scale never before encountered, there is a large screen in the centre of the stage upon which helpful photographs, documents, maps and information – all historically accurate – are displayed. In fact, Foxton has designed a simple and yet superb set. A circular ‘stage’ around which the performers and their props and instruments wait in Brechtian fashion, with a false gallery and prosc arch, bunting, the royal Coat Of Arms, and footlights. Just what one would have expected to find at the theatre at the end of a pier in those days.

There are ten performers in all; but don’t ask me to tell you how many characters they play between them! However, their character changes are swift and clever, with the simple addition of a hat or scarf, or perhaps even just an umbrella. They are also multi-talented as indeed they all must also sing, dance and play at least one musical instrument, as they were also the show’s band, “The Merry Roosters”. And so, piano, bass, clarinet, trombone, drum kit, and goodness knows what else were played by those members not actually involved in the acting of each scenelet.

I must say right now that under normal circumstances I am absolutely no fan of actor-musicians; and I still think I would have enjoyed the show more had they been separate, but it certainly didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would, and for a show of this particular style, and the lovely Brechtian directing by the Coliseum’s Artistic Director Kevin Shaw, it was apt and fitted well. I do feel though that some of the songs would have benefited from a fuller sound vocally; although the harmonies were lovely, they were a little sparse.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

In fact Shaw has brought out the best from both his cast and the show in this. It could do with being a little pacier; I felt especially the first half dragged ever so slightly (perhaps because the audience didn’t really “get it”) but hopefully given a few more runs for it to “bed-in” the pace will naturally quicken anyway. Beverley Norris-Edmunds should also be commended here too for her lovely choreography. Stylistically perfect and worked excellently.

It is almost impossible to single out certain cast members from others in a show such as this, a true ensemble piece in every regard, but I cannot leave this review without mentioning them, as they are all excellent. They are Isobel Bates, Matt Connor, Richard J. Fletcher, Jeffrey Harmer, Barbara Hockaday, Anthony Hunt, Thom Petty, Lauryn Redding, Reece Richardson, and David Westbrook. My favourite number from the evening though simply has to be the lovely acapella rendering of When This Lousy War Is Over.

Oh What A Lovely War may not prove to be everyone’s cup of tea (but I guess the same can be said of any piece of theatre); however, I do believe that the Coliseum have got another hit show on their hands with this one. Poignant, relevant, and also very funny, true to the spirit and concept of the original production. Well done chaps!

Oh What A Lovely War is at the Oldham Coliseum until 30th September.

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