Peter Ormerod reviews Oh! What a Lovely War at the Spa Centre, Leamington
There is tragedy in war; there is heartbreak, calamity, pity. All these have been admirably explored in theatres around Warwickshire in recent weeks as the centenary of the First World War armistice approaches. But what Spa Opera present here is war’s profound and nauseating absurdity. And it may be the bravest production of all.
Few shows in the company’s 59-year history can have been anything like this confrontational and disquieting. Oh! What a Lovely War originated in Joan Littlewood’s groundbreaking Theatre Workshop in east London in 1963. It caused a sensation at the time with its searing send-up of the hypocrisy and cant surrounding the First World War. And here, in the hands of a company more used to staging musicals and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and performed before an audience that often seemed baffled and bewildered, it somehow felt even more subversive. It is unquestionably not for everyone, and Spa Opera is surely to be commended for daring to stage such a challenging work.
This is not really a musical. It’s not really even a play with music. It takes the form of a series of skits and vignettes, many based around popular songs from the era. It is bitty and disjointed, deliberately so; it does not pretend that war gives us neat stories. The show begins with a greeting from the compere of an end-of-the-pier show, all corny jokes and slightly forced bonhomie. It puts the audience rather on edge: are we supposed to laugh along? The unnerving air is accentuated by the Pierrot clown make-up worn by the entire cast. There is no real set to speak of – only an assortment of chairs. Centre stage are the Palm Court Orchestra, in a makeshift bandstand bedecked with melancholic Union Flags. The Pirates of Penzance this is not.
It is all rather eerie and odd. Pack up your Troubles is sung by appallingly maimed soldiers. A Sergeant Major barks orders incomprehensibly. A shooting party of profiteering toffs metamorphoses into pigs. Jollity is undercut at every turn by overhead projections detailing battlefield catastrophes. It is offbeat, oddball, twisted and dangerous. The grotesque reality lurking behind the veneer of smiles and patriotism is laid bare.
This is not a show of individual star turns. Rather, it is a genuine ensemble piece, with every member of the cast playing an important part. There are some notable highlights, including a performance of the rather troublingly seductive enlistment song I’ll Make a Man of You. The opening of the second half, as the cast sang the title song from the aisles, right in the faces of the audience as they clapped along uneasily, made for powerful theatre.
It was not always easy to hear the words, and the text on the projections could have been larger. But Spa Opera, directed by Mark Grady, and the musicians, led by Richard Taggart, attack the show with gusto. This may not be a theatrical experience relished by some of Spa Opera’s usual theatregoers; but in its own way, it is a strange triumph.
* Oh! What a Lovely War runs at the Spa Centre until Saturday October 27. Visit www.warwickdc.gov.uk/royalspacentre to book.