Marking the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood's revolutionary theatre workshop classic, Blackeyed Theatre's new production of Oh What a Lovely War has landed at Southwark Playhouse, rekindling the spirit of the original that shook the foundations of musical theatre. Littlewood's vision, which originally portrayed the grim narrative of World War I through the lens of popular songs from the era, finds new life in this rendition, directed by Nicky Allpress. This production is timely, sobering, with the right balance of whimsy.
The heart of the performance lies in the ensemble cast of six, adorned in Pierrot costumes, echoing the Commedia dell'arte style from Littlewood's initial production. These performers – Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma, and Euan Wilson – showcase a remarkable sense of unity and discipline, and each member has their moments to shine. Undoubtedly, their cohesion has been honed over a substantial run, resulting in a tight-knit group that seamlessly navigates between various characters and musical roles. Under the musical direction of Ellie Verkerk, the real strength of the talented actor-musicians ensemble lies in their ability to harmonise not only vocally, but switch between roles, dance and play instruments, maintaining a vibrant energy throughout the performance.
The strategic placement of songs in this extensive musical repertoire illuminates the show's clever construction. Each song serves as a poignant snapshot of the era, ensuring that even in the face of a marathon-like song-list, the audience remains captivated. And the youthful exuberance of this recently graduated cast contributes to the joyful but sinister atmosphere. Director Nicky Allpress skilfully navigates the delicate balance between whimsy and seriousness. The breezy jauntiness that drives the production keeps the audience engaged while the tension beneath the surface serves as a constant reminder of the horrors depicted. Allpress displays a keen understanding of when to push the right buttons for sombre reflection, showcasing great invention and style in every directorial choice.
Victoria Spearing's set design seamlessly transports the audience into the world of a whimsical yet worn-out circus. This metaphorical political circus is brilliantly presented using a simple yet beautiful circus tent. Sat in the first row, I found this setting not only visually captivating but also an immersive experience that heightened the overall impact. The irony is beautifully woven into the design, underscoring the absurdity of power-hungry political and military leaders. Adam Haigh's precise movement direction contributes to the seamless flow of the narrative, offering crisp choreography that complements the overall production without distracting. Clive Elkingston's projection design operates as a poignant cultural archive, presenting images and figures that underscore the horrific casualties of war. The visual elements add depth to the narrative, serving as a stark reminder of the consequences of political and military decisions.
Amidst two ongoing devastating wars, where politicians and generals are causing chaos, and ordinary people endure severe deprivation and unnecessary loss of life, Oh What a Lovely War stands out as a powerful anti-war message. Not only does it carry emotional weight, but it also vividly showcases the horrors and absurdities of a historical moment, offering valuable lessons for today. Littlewood's creation now six decades old, shockingly retains its relevance, reminding audiences of the enduring consequences of war and the folly of those who lead nations into conflict. As the ensemble weaves through the narrative, the production remains a timeless testament to the enduring power of theatre to provoke thought and inspire change.
Oh What a Lovely War plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 9 December. For information and tickets, you can follow the link here.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Alex-Harvey Brown