★★★★ | Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East
Oh What A Lovely War, written by Joan Littlewood in 1963, depicts the essence of the First World War unbelievably well. Littlewood galvanised the idea of hunger, loss, bravery and even fear very convincingly. She said she wanted to write songs that were gritty and truthful to the events of the trenches. The most moving moment in the musical was when the soldiers sang I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier after having been shown real-time war images that showed trenches where men had been blown up or even the image of a few soldiers managing to brave a smile for the passing camera, as there was destruction in the foreground.
I was touched by the homage that The Theatre Royal Stratford East production paid to the fallen 2.5 million men who fought bravely in WWI. Even as an audience member in 2015, I felt that the pain and sadness felt at the time were shared across the spectators during some scenes and the use of multimedia was the best I have seen in a long time. In occasional scenes, a screen would come down and facts of the number of deaths during the different stages of the war were displayed, as the action ensued, which added to the nostalgic effect.
As an ensemble, The Theatre Royal Stratford East performed formidably, with natural singing, dancing and acting flair, in particular, Alice Bailey Johnson whose voice was sublime, and multi-part played roles in a dynamic fashion, especially with different accents. Ian Redding, who most might remember as Tricky Dicky in Eastenders, was a delight to watch. His comedic timing was outstanding, and the funniest part of the show for me was when he played the Sergeant. In this scene, Ian’s character was shouting at his platoon, but instead of words, he was just spitting spluttering and talking gibberish at them.
Although the set was ornate and well designed, it appeared to look unstable, as when actors leaped onto certain staircase-like stages, it wobbled and did not look safe. However, this did not distract us from the action, as the cast leaped around beautifully.
The ending was the most moving moment of all. After singing They Didn’t Believe Me, the audience were shown more images of the First World War and it paused on the last picture, where four soldiers smiled and it looked as though they were staring right at us. Here, the cast paused too and looked up to screen in respect to the spirited soldiers.
Not only did this show break the fourth wall, it also summoned onto the stage the emotions that would have been felt during the era of 1914-1918, where the Great War took place. A must see, but with a word of warning: bring your own tissues, to contain your tears of joy, but also of grief.