Sunday, May 26

Oh What a Lovely War – Theatr Clwyd

Joan Littlewood’s iconic, satirical masterpiece O what a lovely war! was first performed sixty years ago and is still as memorable and important as ever.

Blackeyed Theatre’s new touring production is imaginative and confidently performed by a small troupe of six multi-talented actor-musicians.  As its aesthetic is a stylized circus theme, it suited Theatr Clwyd’s beautiful temporary ‘tent’ which if you haven’t seen, the word doesn’t do it justice: it’s a wonderful space and well worth a visit.

Into this, Director Nicky Allpress brings a small and somewhat subdued colour-toned group of circus performers with just a splash of red from the ringmaster.  The simplistic set of a big top entrance is itself drab but works well as a khaki background to the war games that are to be revealed. Sometimes, the lighting was a little drab too, maybe that was the intention but certainly the darkness around the peripherals didn’t let us see the crosses that presumably were there for a reason. Perhaps some moments of brightness could have served as a contrast.

The show’s strength is in the performances that drew us in to the story and the music of those old wartime songs – Row, row, row, it’s a long way to Tipperary, Roses of Picardy, Goodbyee.  (My grandmother used to sing me those songs long before I saw the play or the 1969 film.)  Having seen many interpretations over the years, it was good to see another, where all but six players had to fill the room -and fill it they did!  The sound was at times a little too loud. When all the instruments were playing the clarity of a few vocals was lost and quite often the dialogue seemed shouted rather than projected.

This was a frenetic, noisy and energetic opening which certainly grabbed our attention and gave us the chaos of war – the soundtrack of battlefields.  When they did find the moments of stillness it was well observed. The Christmas Truce being a particularly memorable scene.  The moments of comedy were well timed. The stylized movements of soldiers marching and dying were poignant, the acapella singing beautiful. The grouping of generals and soldiers, the wonderfully creative ballroom and the chaplain scene worked particularly well as did the inventive “the bells of Hell”.

As the cast deliver the satire, a backdrop reveals images and statistics about how many were killed. They are statistics, even after all this time, that leave a lump in your throat but perhaps a bigger backdrop could have given us clearer, more impressive images and the words could have been larger. This is the bit that’s meant to shock us! Maybe in different venues this was possible to achieve.

This ensemble worked well as a team, for there was so much for them to do: constantly changing characters, accents, costumes and instruments. Each of them had a brilliant rapport with the audience making this an immersive, interactive experience and they all gave one hundred percent in their performances.  Tom Benjamin as a confident Ringmaster like an MC connecting the audience to the proceedings, Tom Crabtree as trumpeter and in sympathetic multi-roles, Alice Mayer’s “I’ll make a man of you” was saucy and slick and she got us all singing with “Sister Susie’s” tongue twister. Obo player Ewan Wilson played every nationality with vigor and Chioma Uma’s voice was very appealing, her violin giving yet another dimension to the band, but it was Harry Curley’s performance that stood out with a clarity and resonance that somehow captured the spirit of the piece.

All in all, this production was well received with a standing ovation and in that space six performers did a fine job, although personally I felt it would have worked even better with a cast of eight or ten, giving it a little more scope and for me some of the emotional connection wasn’t there.  Nevertheless, it was visually and musically a success and a joy to see this seminal piece of British theatre still relevant to a new generation and still entertaining us after 60 years.  

The show runs until 27th April tickets from  

Reviewer: Bev Clark

Reviewed: 23rd April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.