Stuart King

Review: OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! at Southwark Playhouse

Joan Littlewood’s groundbreaking 1963 production, both mocked the incompetence, arrogance and indifference of the officer classes and highlighted the plight of the working class soldier, during the horrors and pointless bloodshed of the First World War. In light of Ukraine and Gaza, this rare revival seems tragically apposite and timely, but remains a difficult piece of entertainment to enjoy.

The Company of Oh What A Lovely War at Southwark Playhouse Borough. Photography by Alex Harvey-Brown.The Company of Oh What A Lovely War at Southwark Playhouse Borough. Photography by Alex Harvey-Brown.

At the Southwark Playhouse, the cast of 6 performers under the direction of Nicky Allpress jovially present the ghastly spectre of destruction and death. Mud, whizz-bangs, mustard gas and the Generals’ stubborn hubris, conspire to ensure that the casualty numbers (revealed through projections, similarly to the original production) are heartbreakingly incomprehensible. The conflict, dubbed the war to end all wars, had largely come about due to the ego’s and ambitions of men determined to expand their empires whilst the jingoistic news articles and conscription propaganda of the day, ensured that the recruitment offices were never empty of patriotic young men ready to die for King and country.

The show’s jaunty WWI songs including: It’s A Long Way To Tipperary and the crowd-pleasing tongue-twister Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts which are doused in irony with their unrelenting upbeatness, soon give way to sadder and more reflective tunes like Roses of Picardy and Keep The Home Fires Burning as the casualty numbers mount. Combined, these provide the company with considerable material to get their teeth into and each of the cast members (Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma and Euan Wilson) demonstrate musical skills and performance chops, delivering oodles of energy in a relatively tight playing area.

What would General Haig have made of his position and decision-making being unpicked and laid-bare? No-one cares! Deluded warmongers are only good for one thing these days, and that is to remind ourselves that stubborn idiocy when combined with influence and given power, make for a supremely dangerous combination.