Review: Oh, what a lovely war!
“Would the lady in the second row please kindly remove that dachshund?”
In this play, the ADC Theatre commemorates the WW1 centenary with "songs for you, a few battles, and some jokes", as set up from the beginning.
Oh, what a lovely war! follows the path of the ironic WW1 narratives, which originate in the veterans’ post-war memory and gained their full blossom after the WW2. This narrative reflects a strict contrast with the official, top-down state opinion of WW1, which emphasised victory, glory and patriotism. In this glorified WW1 discourse, the veteran's experience about the reality of the trenches and No-Man's land couldn't be more than a counter-narrative, which take form in irony and sarcasm.
If you fancy a laugh, you can take your pick from several styles of humour. You can laugh at the ironic undertones of France and Germany's quarrel over Alsace-Lorraine in one of the first scenes. Or at the cynicism of Belgium smoking resignedly at the allied conference, while France and England mutually aren’t able to understand each other, as if we were in a classic sitcom. There is also a nice tribute to the alfa and omega of sarcastic war literature, The Good Soldier Švejk.
If you plan to cry, the play certainly possibility for that, too. Sudden contrasts distinguish between the ironic and serious passages. It mirrors well the differences between the war experience of politicians and of the Tommies. For example, the paraphrase of the Christmas Truth story made me shiver. With the cast using the stairs next to my seat to represent the trenches, I became one of the Tommies – I listened to their Christmas dreams and wishes and heard the Stile Nacht being sung somewhere not so far. I could observe the Tommies' surprise and fear as they shakily climbed out from their cover to meet the German soldiers in the middle of the stage. There are several kitschy and cheesy interpretations of the story, when during Christmas the enemy soldiers celebrated together, but this one yesterday was discrete, fresh and very moving.
The directing and the stage design is minimalist and creative. Dressing all the actors and the stage up in white sheets gives the feeling of being surrounded by white flags. They extensively used the venue: the edge of the stage, the doors, the stairs. The casting is almost flawless, inclusive and gender neutral. Since the play is basically a musical, the quality of voices is a watershed. But we cannot be disappointed, because the voices in the Oh, what a lovely war! are the best which I could hear so far in a musical in Cambridge.
As an example, the Keep the bonfires burning in Alice Murray's performance got tears into my eyes and it was also pleasant to listen to Archie Williams's higher registers. The voices in the lady's quartet were distinctive one by one and produced a perfect sound together. It was kind of funny that Phoebe Schenk put the same figure into her solo that she had used in the Very Brexit Musical. But never mind, we loved that, too. The French and German accents used by the actors were also very impressive, and the sense of community amongst the cast really fit the soldiers' parts.
A play like this, performed in a small theatre at night, gives more to our WW1 memory than the whole Centenary parade.
Disclaimer: the author writes a PhD on WW1 memory and the Centenary commemorations.