I saw the original production of Oh What a Lovely War in New York in the mid-Sixties, where it made a great impression on me – not only because of the show's novelty and quality, but because of its extraordinary relevance. While the pierrots of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop put on their end-of-the-pier show, juxtaposing the inanely cheerful songs of the First World War with its horrifying reality, Americans were noticing the "credibility gap" between what was happening in Vietnam and what we were expected to believe. The generals insisting that the next few weeks or months would bring a turning-point in the river of blood; the profiteers troubled by a rumour of peace; the people who opposed withdrawal because it would mean their sons had died in vain – all this was happening in our lives, as well as on the stage.
In England, the show did not, of course, have such an urgent and specific counterpart, but its insouciant contempt for the ruling class was striking in a country that was just beginning to shake off its reflexive deference.
Now, of course, the show's contemporary appositeness has dimmed – though the blanket hostility toward the officer class is sadly up to date. But along with condemning their frivolity and self-absorption, the show does include a scene in which an upper-class pacifist is barracked by a group of cockneys who equate truth with treason. "Wash yer face!" jeers a voice from the grubby crowd, making the noise of all those who, now as then, cling to their cosy ignorance and scream at the light.
The sketches, much imitated by the Monty Python and Blackadder comedians, have retained their vigour. One still laughs at the terrifying, incomprehensible sergeant drilling recruits armed with three canes and an umbrella, and the laughter is still cut by the reflection that they were sent to die as ill prepared as if they had carried these weapons to the front.
The setting of the Open Air Theatre ought to guarantee the sense of delicacy and magic that I remember, but Ian Talbot's cast, some reminiscent of Dad's Army in fancy dress and none exactly light on their feet, are far from the puffball quality of helpless pierrots. Much of the singing is weak, despite those ghastly wire-trailing face mics that make the actors look as though they're awaiting surgery.
John Hodgkinson, though, is a hilariously fearsome sergeant and disdainful French general, and Audrey Palmer delivers, with confidence as zingy as it is misplaced, a number from the early days of the war, "Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser". The scenery is fine: a skeletal pier with red, white and blue fairy lights, topped by a screen on which nostalgic sepia photographs alternate with bulletins, flashed a word at a time, of the fatalities, still appalling and sobering.
This long-overdue revival has cleared up a mistake I made all those years ago, when a girl who wished to encourage recruitment sang, "On Saturday I'm willing/ If you'll only take the shilling/ To make a man of any one of you." Unfamiliar with English idiom and misled by the saucy costume, I heard it as "It only takes a shilling".
To 3 September (020-7486 2431)
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