Oh What A Lovely War

Team of Pierrots

My grand-dad's reminiscences of the Western Front were droll, mainly disreputable anecdotes; getting demoted for card-playing on guard duty or hitting an unreasonable Welsh sergeant; an officer christened Captain VinBlonk for his alcohol habit. He only wept once, remembering what happened to the horses. I think he had learned not to cry about human beings.

In 1914 millions of men - a million Indians for God's sake - presented their lives as a disposable resource to the governments of Europe who, in obedience to Parkinson's Law, proceeded to use them up for no discernable reason other than that they were available. All the theatres of war had their own horrors, but it was the Western front which consumed most British casualties, and has remained longest in the British imagination.

Coincidentally - I think - it was a golden age for popular song in a way that World War II wasn't: the Victorian traditions of ballad and music hall had been reinvigorated from across the Atlantic. I appreciate that the programme is small and free, but I would have liked something in it about the music, or perhaps I'm being an 'anorak'.

“ the virtue of bracing inexperienced players with veterans was no doubt a necessity ”

I must confess I was puzzled to be told in the programme that the company were hoping to depict events 'without undue nostalgia or bitterness', which seemed to me like a 'top-shelf' magazine hoping to avoid undue voyeurism. Nostalgia and bitterness is the perverse mixture which is responsible for this show because it is central to the way we still view the Great War, the way it continues to haunt us (to the extent that it still does. Maybe young people see it as just another bit of history; on the whole, I hope so).

Onto the highly effective set, both massive and claustrophobic, danced the team of Pierrots who were to tell the story, their white costumes given different-coloured collars to differentiate between the nationalities they were playing, which, with some symbolic headgear, quickly became as acceptable as full costume would have been. (Again, a programme note about the significance of Pierrot shows, no longer really a living tradition, might have been helpful.)

Emma Muir

Casting only among the experienced is short-termism by definition, and with a cast of nineteen (a record for the company we were told) the virtue of bracing inexperienced players with veterans was no doubt a necessity. A show which in many ways is closer to cabaret than musical suited the Little Theatre, and a company geared towards acting rather than music; better, arguably, than it would have suited a conventional treatment. Making this work fully, though, requires the assurance to sell a song through performance rather than by a musical technique which may not be there.

On the first Saturday of the run there was still a hesitancy amongst some of the cast. Thos who had overcome this, the master of ceremonies for example, or the Act I triple-act of French, Wilson and Lanrezac, were those who appreciated that in this sort of production precision was less important than vividness.

With the hand he had been dealt, director Barry Lee possibly missed a trick in not casting against gender in some of the vignettes. The subject dictated that the central scenes were male-heavy, and there was an occasional sense of overstretched actors and underemployed actresses. Skill will out, of course: the showstopper of Act II was Keep the Home Fires Burning because the soloist had complete confidence in how the song worked and what she should be doing with it.

“ the soloist had complete confidence in how the song worked ”

The slides, vital for the show's sense of ongoing chronology, drew precisely the right amount of attention to themselves. Once or twice legibility was a problem, but they were undoubtedly one of the production's strengths.

I confess to a difficulty with the show's script, which is admirable in its almost exclusive use of contemporary documents and reports but which sometimes seems to slide off the subject. Understandably, it follows the line of 'lions led by donkeys', but there is a glibness to this that won't really do. Neither script nor production resisted the temptation to portray Haig (actually a reticent mumbler) as a barking fanatic, but Haig's shortcomings, if we are to extract meaning from this quagmire, are surely less important than the fact we tolerated them. Of course, the sardonic, undeceived fatalism of the lyrics evolved by the troops to the tunes they knew puts them beyond our ability to question.

“ The slides... drew precisely the right amount of attention ”

At the end, the script abandons narrative (however disillusioned people at the time had got, it still mattered to them who had won). The company gave a simple effective reading of the coolly sad Adieu, La Vie and the almost unbearably bittersweet We'll Never Tell Them.

Well, they did and they didn't. Deeply traumatised, as we would now recognise, the survivors came home to mess up, as Philip Larkin nearly says, their sons, one of whom went on to mess up me. Oh well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it. This millennial production succeeded in reminding us that this has been a good century to be getting out of.

Godfrey Marriott wrote the 'blurb' for the video of Nine and a Half Weeks. He has also acted with Thelmon Players, Dane End Theatre Club and HD&OS.

Review: Godfrey Marriott
Photographs: Steve Beeston