Oh What A Lovely War - National Theatre at Milton Keynes

WOULD anyone in his right mind want to spend a rainswept evening in a tent on a hill in Milton Keynes? It's a taste, you would have thought, likely to be confined to the odd Milton Keynsian crazed with nostalgia for his Scout days. On Thursday, though, a capacity audience gathered in a custom-built `Big Top' in this wondrous spot for the official premiere of the 1998 National Theatre Mobile production - Oh What A Lovely War - directed by Fiona Laird.

To get Joan Littlewood - from whose fabled Theatre Workshop this collaboratively- evolved musical about the horrors and futility of the First World War sprang in the 1960s - even this close to the National, has required the trickiest and most tactful feats of diplomacy. Littlewood anathematises institutions she regards as middle- class and monolithic and when she granted Laird the performance rights to the show, it was stipulated that the National, the RSC and the West Yorkshire Playhouse were no-go areas.

Laird's Oh What A Lovely War is a National Theatre production that will never go inside the National Theatre building (its London venue is in Bernie Spain Gardens, Oxo Tower Wharf).

The roving Big Top idea is cogent both on ideological grounds (community outreach being very much in the Littlewood spirit) and on aesthetic ones (a glittery circus atmosphere should work well for a show that depends upon the bracing clash between the horrific content and the end-of-the- pier style Pierrot presentation). In the event, though, for me, the juxtapositions failed to be jarring enough in this production. It offers a "good night out" in altogether too conventional a sense.

I overheard a young man in the interval saying that "when those Germans came on, I was just in bits". He was referring to the rather well-handled sad/comic Christmas fraternisation scene between the two sides, but here the production was allowing him and others to indulge in a sort of comfortable sentimentality, whereas this is a show whose very British twist on the Brechtian should inspire a less luxuriating pity.

Some of the cartoon-like sketches (international arms manufacturers imagined annihilating innocent bird life at a grouse-shooting party) have the right grotesque attack. But, in general, the vital balance between the documentary aspects (the appalling statistics that slide past on a news panel; the photographic images of trench warfare) and the song and dance performance elements feel skewed in favour of the latter. In some sense, the Real War gets upstaged.A showbiz slickness has a tendency to creep into areas where roughness would be preferable.

There are moments of very affecting, unmilked simplicity in this production, but the overall effect is too professionally "feel-good".