Review: Oh, What a Lovely War!

by Lynn on March 2, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

By Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton.

Directed by Autumn Smith

Music Director, Justin Hiscox

Projections Designer, Ian Garrett

Costumes by Yasaman Nouri

Lighting Designer, Ella Wieckowski

Sound by Mary Keenen

Cast: Rebecca Bauer

Simon Bennett

Ethan Curnett

 Raechel Fisher

Kristiaan Hansen

David Jackson

Mackenzie Kelly

Mark McKelvie

Katie Ready-Walters

Jillian Robinson

Patrick Teed

Khira Wieting

Director Autumn Smith and her hard working, energetic cast give a herculean effort to make this satire applicable to today by presenting it as a video game. But despite good intentions and huge commitment it doesn’t work.

Theatre pioneer, Joan Littlewood, her Theatre Workshop Company and Charles Chilton created Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1963 for her Stratford East Theatre in London, Eng. as a biting satire of World War I and all wars really.  They packed the show with the lilting, upbeat music hall ‘war’ songs of the day: “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-bag”, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” etc. interspersed with projections of the statistics of the dead and wounded. The good natures of the young soldiers were in stark relief to the bungling arrogance of the officers in charge of sending these soldiers to their deaths at Ypres, the Somme, Vimy etc. without a shred of remorse or concern. They just kept making the same blunder again and again as the numbers of dead and wounded rose.

Director Autumn Smith is a wonderful, creative theatre artist. But she had a daunting task: to take a show that was 57-years-old, about an event that was more than 100-years- old and make it accessible to a modern audience who might be predominantly millennials.

She tackled the problem with determination, tenacity and lots of imagination by presenting the show as a video game, complete with computer generated images. The narrator for the game—a rather imposing CGI face with eyes that squinted in disbelief or exasperation—that was projected on panel on the side of the stage. The narrator’s voice was commanding and British. We were given a lot of background by those representing  the many countries that ‘played’: Britain, Germany, Russia, Hungry, Austria etc. We got a sense of the hard work in boot camp as the young cast went through its paces climbing over boxes, doing exercise, slithering along the ground. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cast go through such a gruelling regime. Very impressive. The singing was crisp and beautiful—kudos to Music Director, Justin Hiscox.  The most moving scene in the play is the last scene in Act I. It’s Christmas Eve at the front. The Allies are on one side of no man’s land and the Germans are on the other. The Allies hear the singing of a Christmas hymn coming from the other side. Kind words are exchanged to the other side and back. For a minute the two sides meet in the middle, exchange schnapps and handshakes and then go back to their respective trenches and continue killing each other. Beautifully done scene. The futility of war. There are many videos of newsreels of the time with film of battles projected on the back wall.

But while there were admirable aspects to this production there were also many that made it a disappointment. The game analogy doesn’t quite make it if the ‘sides’ are not clearly differentiated. When the players were introduced there was no effort to explain who was fighting whom and that should have been clear. The Germans were on one side and the Allies were on the other according to history books. Littlewood’s play isn’t concerned with this, but if ‘the game’ is the metaphor, then the audience should know who is fighting whom.

When the various countries are introduced with their statistics and other details at the beginning of the game, the people representing the countries could do with better enunciation and clarity of what is being said. Too often it is woefully compromised either by putting too much spin on an accent or screeching into the head microphones. The result is often unintelligible.

The CGI face of the narrator and his information often goes on for too long and the pace lags. There are projections of the horrific numbers of dead and wounded suffered by each country but too often there are characters standing in front of the projections so we can’t actually see clearly what we should be seeing. So the characters then quickly recite the numbers of the countries and again it’s a blur and cluttered. I recall that Germany was in that cluster of numbers. Again, if it’s a game with a winner and a loser, we should see clearly who that is.

The irony of course is that there are no winners in war. Autumn Smith makes that clear in her programme note as does Joan Littlewood in Oh, What A Lovely War! As I said, I appreciate the imagination of Autumn Smith to come up with this concept and stick to it with resolve. I was mighty impressed with the energy of the cast. It’s just that the concept didn’t work and too often what was being said was not clear enough.

Hart House Theatre Presents:

Opened: Feb. 28, 2020.

Closes: March 7, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, approx.

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