Oh, What a Lovely War! – Reviewed
I walked into this show without having decided what standard to hold it up to. The fresher’s play is somewhat notorious, so would I bear this in mind and be kind, or would I hold it up to full scrutiny?
I walked into this show without having decided what standard to hold it up to. The fresher’s play is somewhat notorious, so would I bear this in mind and be kind, or would I hold it up to full scrutiny? I was fully prepared for the former, but I’m delighted to say that this mental discussion was resolved within the first ten minutes. By anyone’s standards, this is a very good production.
Oh What a Lovely War is an ensemble piece with an opinion, and it doesn’t so much feed the audience that opinion as shove it down their throat, accompanied by a great deal of comedy and a little pathos. That opinion is undoubtedly left-wing, anti-capitalist and anti-war, but if you can stomach that (I certainly can) then you are given a very Brechtian show, mercilessly employing comedy to prove its point. Naturalism this is not, and the acting style is predictably exaggerated and archetypal. Luckily for a play that above all requires a universally strong, energetic group of actors, the cast display a unique camaraderie which is ultimately the production’s greatest success. They are, as a group, a very strong bunch, but it is clearly Matt Dann’s direction that shines through, uniting it into one of the most cohesive large casts that I have seen in the Assembly Rooms.
The comedy in particular is extremely polished, and I often felt like I was watching the last show in a run rather than the first. Perhaps most notable in this respect were Joe Skelton and Simon Gallow, both of whom gave consistently fantastic performances. Gallow’s ‘shouty sergeant’ (as I mentally nicknamed him) was probably the best character we saw all night. Without a doubt, however, the star of the show was the technical design. The lighting design, by Dan Gosselin, was among the best I have seen in the Assembly Rooms. The set, playing off the ‘war games’ theme, was perfect, complementing every scene without ever getting in the way.
The costume works well too. Dann has clearly taken a lot of Brechtian inspiration, necessary in a show where actors shed characters every couple of scenes, and the simple use of hats to convey these changes was generally successful. Amelia Birch and Anna Gorska (the producers) have done a superb job sourcing it all. This doesn’t mean to say there aren’t one or two weak moments. Some of the songs feel rather under-rehearsed compared to the dialogue, and there were a number of points, both in singing and dialogue, where heavy accents obscured the actual words.
The cast also tend to be far stronger in the comedy scenes than in those requiring a little more finesse, and as a whole, I felt they didn’t engage fully with the fundamental message. This wasn’t, on the whole, a problem until the end, which lacked a little of the harrowing spectacle that it could provoke. Kate Sheppard was a notable exception, providing a touching performance as a German solider shouting across to the Brits in the opposite trench.
A final mention should go to the music. In a ‘play with songs’, it is very easy for the music part to go neglected, and this generally wasn’t the case. The cast made a very good sound, on the whole, and musical director Laura Prime should be commended. Idgie Broadbent-Smith and Michael Earnshaw both stood out in their individual musical performances. Without a choreographer, it is easy for songs to become static and listless, but that was mostly avoided, with a couple of exceptions. I actually feel a little bad picking out specific performances, because this cast really is universally excellent. Despite my initial scepticism, Matt Dann has provided a great deal of hope for the future of DST. Oh what a lovely relief.