In case you haven't noticed, this year is the Centenary of the start of World War I but at Stratford East they are also celebrating the Centenary of the birth of the theatre's unique former artistic director Joan Littlewood. Ironically, Littlewood came close to not even doing the show in 1963.
Her partner Gerry Raffles heard Charles Chilton's radio programme "The Long, Long Road" in 1962 which interspersed soldier's reminiscences with the songs they sang among themselves. Raffles told Littlewood about it and suggested it might make a good show for her company Theatre Workshop but she turned the idea down as she was an avowed pacifist. Undeterred, Raffles invited Chilton to the theatre and while going through the songs, Littlewood began to see the potential in making a show that was a critique of the war and the warmongers but to also celebrate the lives of the ordinary people swept up in their power-games. Her idea to present the company as a Pierrot troupe gave the show a suitably Brechtian twist and featured such characterful actors as Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Larry Dann and Fanny Carby. The show was a huge popular success and moved on to both the West End and Broadway. Richard Attenborough then went on to make a leaden, joyless screen version in 1969.
I have seen two revivals of the show and was looking forward to seeing this one on the stage where it was created.
There are several scenes in the show that always start the silent waterworks and again this production hit those moments with a quiet power - the Christmas Eve, 1914 scene on the western front when the English and German soldiers stop fighting and meet each other in no man's land to share makeshift Christmas presents always sets me off and the powerful scene of the French soldiers baa-ing their way towards the guns, literally 'lambs to the slaughter' is still unsettling. The production uses the original trops of slides of contemporary photographs and a moving display that rolls out the awful casualty totals for the battles but the micro-sign that is in the current production uses too large text which makes it difficult to follow what is being scrolled.
What remains the success of the show is the use of the contemporary tunes as well as the snatches of song that the soldiers would sing while marching or in the trenches which constantly reach down the years and jolt you with their jaundiced and savagely ironical lyrics. The chilling detachment of their words curdle the pretty melodies that they appropriated and are put across by the present company with both gusto and despair.
Sadly for me the show is now hampered by the too-frequent scenes where those who hold the strings - the Generals, the politicians, the businessmen - disrupt the more interesting ones with the soldiers. What makes it all the more frustrating is that these are the real legacy of the Littlewood agit-prop style but now they are too blatant, too obvious and ultimately too damn long. At the start of the second act, there is an interminable scene between American, English, German, French and Dutch businessman comparing the fortunes they have made off their munition-trading while on a Grouse shoot (geddit?). It's so heavy-handed and obvious that it outstays it's welcome very quickly. You want to shout at the stage "Yes we get it!!" A re-write of these scenes could easily be done to make these scenes more effective for a modern audience but I'm guessing the show is frozen in deference to Littlewood's wishes.
The show seemed to take an awful long time to get going - namely down to the interminable "War Game" scenes setting out how the war started but start it did with the first real appearance of Caroline Quentin as the Music Hall star singing the recruitment song "I'll Make A Man Of You". She shook the production awake by the scruff of the neck with her galvanising rendition and her two other major scenes were very effective - speed-singing "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts" and also as Mrs. Pankhurst being hectored and pelted as she tries to deliver a pacifist speech to an angry street crowd. It's actually refreshing that Littlewood included this scene as it showed how most of the general public refused to believe there could be any other way forward apart from through killing.
Among a generally good cast, Ian Bartholomew was particularly fine as General Haig, Shaun Prendergast had a good Max Miller-like quality as the MC of the evening and I liked the contributions of Oliver J. Hembrough, who I remembered as the put-upon husband Edgar in last year's TITANIC. Terry Johnson has directed the show with a sure but possibly a too-reverential hand and I liked the Lez Brotherston's stage design which copied the theatre's proscenium arch and stage boxes in metal scaffolding and filigree.
Constant Reader, as we are on the subject of revisiting shows, I went to see Richard Eyre's pressure-cooker production of GHOSTS again which has now transferred from the Almeida to the Trafalgar Studios (my blog from the original Almeida production is here) and I am happy (?) to report that it is still holds you in a vice-like grip of increasing despair and again I found myself breathless at the power and intensity of Lesley Manville as Mrs. Alving.
It was a pleasure to see her performance again and to see how she subtly shades the reactions and actions of her character and how ultimately she descends into her own living Hell. She is magnificent and it's amazing she has kept up this remarkable performance with all that is asked of her during the course of it's 90 minutes when she is rarely offstage.
Run to see GHOSTS before it closes on March 23nd, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR ended it's run on the 15th.