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In Review: Oh! What a Lovely War

John Freeman
Oh! What a Lovely War

The Dukes
Review by Jane Sunderland

Steeped in irony, Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War, a musical dramatisation of the events and development of World War 1, provides a shocking reminder about why we should always, always question the declaration of a war, its execution, and its continuation.

That the playscript does so in a way which is both potentially entertaining and educational (for a cast and audience alike) makes it a hard act for an actual production to follow. But this production at the Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, more than rises to the challenge, as attested to by the evident engagement of the audience, amused and hugely saddened by turn.

Performed by Year 10 and Year 12 students from Lancaster Girls' Grammar School and Lancaster Royal Grammar School, and directed by LGGS's Helen Tozer and Merril Sheen, the production feels more professional than amateur, with swift, smooth scene changes (and there are 25 scenes, or, more accurately, 'sketches'), and impressive acting, meaningfully dischordant music from Jeremy Truslove's on-stage band, and of course the famous, subversive song lyrics (“We're here because … we're here because... we're here because... we're here...”).

The sketches do not hold back from showing in dark-comedic form how the World War 1 soldiers on both sides provided cannon-fodder both for the generals' interesting 'game' and for the capitalists on both sides of the Atlantic and all parts of Europe, for whom the war (and, hence, prolonging it, in part through the stirring up of a misguided patriotism) provided a wonderful commercial opportunity. But just in case we get too absorbed in the vaudeville and forget that this is satire, the slides behind the stage action remind us of the grim statistics and massive human cost of Ypres, Loos, Verdun and the Somme - for little or no gain - interspersed with World War 1 photos of dead and wounded soldiers, the mud and the trenches.

All this is tremendously moving, including a dramatisation of the famous ceasefire on Christmas Day (complete with exchange of an Xmas pudding with a German sausage, when 'Gerry' shakes hands with 'Tommy'). The concluding 'The lads come home' in 1918 is particularly well done, with a nice ambiguity - have a few soldiers actually made it back to their womenfolk, intact, or is this simply what was supposed to (but did not) happen? It doesn't matter - for behind the whoops of joy there is a projected slide of a large, single red poppy.

It is in many ways a pity to single out individual actors for commendation - partly because this production is such an admirable team effort (with many ensemble scenes), and partly, it has to be said, because it offers more interesting and challenging roles for male than female actors. But it would be churlish not to mention Sam Williamson's Sir Douglas Haig, who enacts the sustained and sadistic conviction of a megalomaniac, and Ruaidhri Johnston (Moranneville, Ghillie and the solo chorister), who clearly has a great acting career ahead of him. Sarah Hawksby did a lovely rendition of 'Hold your hand out' in Act 1, and Alice Cooper Dunn and Jamielee Twigge added real pathos as the Nurses in Act 2.

Congratulations to everyone involved for the total dedication and commitment needed to bring this production about.

Days left to run...

• Fri 5 March 2010 19:30
• Sat 6 March 2010 19:30
Ticket prices: £10/£8
Book tickets online at

Box Office: 01524 598500 (Box Office staffed from 10am-8pm Monday-Saturday)
Info line: 01524 598501 24 hour recorded information
Text phone: 01524 380062
Text Message: 07817 212282

Lancaster Royal Grammar School: Oh! What a Lovely War Comes to The Dukes
Internet Movie Database: Oh! What a Lovely War - Film NOtes (1969) film
Oh! What a Lovely War song lyrics

Charley's War: 1 August-17 October 1916(critically acclaimed comic strip about World War 1 - series currently being edited by virtual-lancaster's John Freeman)