Review by Maggie Gell
Oh What A Lovely War, Harrogate Dramatic Society, Harrogate Theatre.
For its final production of the season, HDS set itself a challenge with what may be described as a musical, but is in many ways more of a dramatic play with music and song incorporated.
A cast of 20 and over 125 parts to cover, the much-lauded play about the First World War by acclaimed writer, Joan Littlewood is something of a history lesson in itself and indeed a group of students complete with school books and files in front of us no doubt learned much from what proved to be an extremely well executed piece of theatre.
Superb direction from Chris Rawson presented fast and fluid continuity of the many scenes with all the action set on a plain stage with just a Union Jack image on the stage floor, a handful of seating props and stark black and white photos showing authentic footage from the the war years projected throughout the play onto the backdrop.
The cast or ‘Pierrots’ dressed in black and white pierrot clown costumes played in an ‘end of pier’ style as the play cleverly takes its audience through the reasons behind the war, why it started, the sense and strength of feeling of those left behind in the UK and the thoughts and actions of the thousands upon thousands of young men who were sent to the front line by misguided superiors, to either return to their homeland injured or to never return again.
Numerous costume changes were needed and the attention to detail by the costume team to ensure authenticity has to be commended here.
The play is actually quite stark stuff and reminders are constantly given of the statistical facts of the unbelievable number of deaths needlessly suffered during the war. That isn’t to say there are occasional moments of humour particularly from the troops on the front line.
Interspersed are popular songs and patriotic tunes from the day and the cast deliver these quite beautifully with feeling and understanding, be it as a chorus or in some delightful duets and solo numbers.
The band of young musicians accompanying does an excellent job, too.
There’s no need to single out any particular role because this is truly a team production from the ‘spirited boys’ in the trenches preparing to go over the top as the ‘big push’ draws ever nearer, the women workers at home in the munition and cotton factories missing loved ones, the generals on all sides driving on their passion to win at all costs, however tragic they may be, the Suffragettes and the profiteers for whom war is merely a means of making money.
Littlewood’s play was a tour de force of its time, it was a hugely successful musical in the 1960s and of course, became a film studded with a star-filled cast.
Even today, it resonates and I’d be interested to know just what the young students watching it for their school studies made of it.
A final poignant tribute by the director saw a final tableau of the cast standing quite still as a shower of red poppies descended slowly onto the stage and petals fell about them.
The message was brought home to its audience with dignity. This was an ouststanding production by HDS and one that left its audience with much to think about.
Oh What A Lovely War runs at Harrogate Theatre until Saturday, May 4
Cast: Jenny Antram, Kate Antram, Catherine Bonello, Susan Bravender, John Colston, Chris Cowling, Paul Dunstan, John Glyn Jones, Ian Hagues, Chris Keenan, Stuart Kellett, Sheila McIntosh, Gill McVey, Richard Naylor, Stuart Newsome, Joash Parker, Sue Rawson, Judith Simpson, Lesley Wheal and John Wilford.