Oh! What a Lovely War

Derby Theatre


This musical was first performed on stage in 1963, but it was the1969 film that made a mass cultural impact. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War I in the army, and my father served for thirty years as an RAF Officer.

Sixty years on its impact, and the controversy surrounding it should not be underestimated. The literati were fawning in their praise of the author Joan Littlewood, the establishment cautious of lampooning a conflict which still touched most families in this country.

The film cast reads like a who is who of contemporary cinema including Maggie Smith, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson,, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, and Susannah York.

That indicates the esteem in which the musical was held. Everyone wanted to be involved.

The play opened at the Theatre Royal Stratford East but the official censor did not grant permission for a transfer to the West End until Princess Margaret attended giving her Royal approval despite the objections of the family of Field Marshal Haig.

war mid

Blackeyed Theatre embraces the controversial material head on presenting a cast of actor-musicians, counterpointing the farce of war with its sobering wartime statistics illustrated by Clive Elkington’s backdrop projections.

The songs were drawn from a book published in 1917 called Tommy's Tunes which had new lyrics written in the trenches to well-known songs of the era, many from hymns or from West End shows that are still familiar today including "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", "Pack up Your Troubles" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning". Musical director Ellie Verkerk does a fine job in reinvigorating them.

Curtain up reveals a band of Pierrots, already in place from some pre- show front of house antics in hybrid show costumes with military paraphernalia imaginatively realised by costume designer Naomi Gibbs.

The comedy of three quarters a century ago feels surprisingly fresh in the hands of Director Nicky Allpress, mixing satire, physical comedy, slapstick and straight forward gags (a flattened officer is A Flat major). Fun is found in soldiers in training, a hilarious choreographed housewives at the washing line scene, and mocking the trademark propaganda posters. Tom Crabtree, Tom Benjamin are in the thick of the laughs alongside Alice Mayer. Chioma Uma’s singing is superb. The Christmas Day ceasefire scene is handled sensitively and poignantly skillfully avoiding mawkishness.

This should be compulsory viewing in Russia, Ukraine, Gaza and Israel. A worthy and timeous revival

Continues to 20th April then on nationwide tour to Mold, Wakefield, Wolverhampton, Basildon, Worthing, Hoddesdon and, Didcot.

Gary Longden


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