Review: Oh What a Lovely War, MAST Mayflower Studios, 29 January 2024

Review: Oh What a Lovely War, MAST Mayflower Studios, 29 January 2024

By Martin Brisland.

More than sixty years on from its debut, this classic satire about war still has power to shock and to thoroughly entertain.

Blackeyed Theatre’s first-rate production of Oh What A Lovely War set in World War 1 is highly relevant today given the threats to world stability in our current times. How little, despite so much seeming progress, we really change.

The play was developed out of a radio show by Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles in 1963. It became well-known as Richard Attenborough’s directorial film debut in 1969, with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and Susannah York.

This wonderful new touring production at the MAST has just six actor-musicians delivering a tight ensemble piece.

The multi-instrumentalist cast switch between dialogue, music, and song with consummate ease. In turn they play the apparently uncaring upper echelons of the military and society, and the downtrodden but resilient soldier class. The lions led by donkeys.

Songs of the time are used, such as, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Sister Susie’s Sowing Shirts, Keep the Home Fires Burning, I’ll Make a Man of You, They Were Only Playing Leapfrog, and If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum.

The two most poignant moments are the second half songs, When This Lousy War is Over and And When They Ask Us. There are comic numbers too with the knockabout They Were Only Playing Leapfrog when one staff officer jumped over another staff officer’s back)

The narrative is broadly chronological, though the story may be a little hard to follow for those not familiar with the passage of the ‘war to end all wars’. Seeing the figures of many thousands of dead projected on to a screen for each battle still feels unbelievable. The numbers killed still shock, with over 57,000 casualties on the Somme’s first day.

This production of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War is directed by Nicky Allpress. It returns to Littlewood’s original production values of the Theatre Workshop.

Musically directed by Ellie Verkerk the superb six-strong cast play instruments throughout. They are a wonderful team, singing beautifully ensemble, a capella or solo.

A favourite sketch was the British Army Major teaching a line-up of men to use their bayonets. The characterisation by Harry Curley here was just excellent. Another scene with a translator comically demonstrated the difficulties of having international allies.

The second act opens in 1915 with a group of upper-class men going shooting with an American and discussing the weapons they are currently using on the enemy. This is followed by a wonderfully witty and satirical ballroom scene with a group of notable British Generals, including the much maligned Field Marshal Douglas Haig, and their wives.

Oh What a Lovely War really gives an opportunity to every actor in the ensemble to take the lead and to shine at different times.

The audience is left with the abiding memory of the sheer misery and torture of trench living effectively turned into black comedy with a German leg propping up a parapet.

Oh What a Lovely War runs for 2 hours and 10 minutes and is at the MAST Mayflower Studios until Wednesday 31 January.

Tickets via or 02380 711811.

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