The musical theatre play 'Oh What A Lovely War' was considered controversial in the early 1960s. It was almost daring in its abject criticism through an unsympathetic parody of the generals who had governed the actions of the British Troops in WW1 and 'Oh What A Lovely War' prospered artistically and became the show to see. As a critical hit it showed up foolhardy decisions that led to mass slaughter of millions of European men and it exposed the exploitation of the times where profiteers profited from the demise of others. It was indeed a hit! The amazing thing was that the WW1 catastrophe was shown through the theatrical framework of an end of the pier Pierott show and in taking the subject completely out of context it worked as an educational and theatrical tool. Dramatic juxtapositions and fast pace were the core of it's success.
'Oh What a Lovely War' has been a popular show with amateur and professional companies ever since and particularity so during 2014 the centenary year of the start of the First World War. In Nottingham City alone we have two productions on going. First to take off is the People's Theatre Company in their production at The Arts Theatre on George Street. Not only is it a very big cast of 63 but they are offering two relevant charities to benefit from their box office. These are the British Legion – set up after the First World War and Help for Heroes- a more contemporary channel for financial help through charity. In fact their show ends poignantly with a minute's silence and a collection at the door as people exit. All very laudable and moving.
The director Maggie Andrew was keen to allow as many people as feasibly possible to be involved in the show. These would include young and old and those in between. Theatrically experienced and inexperienced are combined in the show and this takes its toll on the show's dramatic effect at the Arts Theatre. The physical structure of the venue has a bit of a reputation for its poor acoustics and, unfortunately on the opening night a fair amount of the dialogue was inaudible and I was sitting near the front row. The exceptions were in the more experienced members of the cast. John Uttley as the belligerent Sergeant being a prime example. In a couple of the musical numbers there seemed to be some uncertainty as to lyrics from the cast and I felt that some of the pieces were under- rehearsed. Conversely many of the other songs were very well done on occasions – good energy and appropriately moving and the youthful choreography by Natalie Randell was well executed to the point of dynamic and engaging.
In a show that is built up in a musical sketch format intertwined with political parody fast pace is paramount to keep the energy and interest and on occasion it simply didn't happen. Despite Lily Taylor Ward's splendid singing of 'Roses in Picardy' the concurrent scene of 'the rich entertain' was ponderous and incomprehensible and so much of the essential audience attention was lost. This was a shame and perhaps the piece could have been trimmed back to better effect. The same could be said for a scene with a young boy and girl dancing around a radio with adverts for health products screened behind them. Unless this allowed a chance for performers to change clothes en mass it seemed utterly pointless. Once you start to lose an audience it can take an awful lot to get them back on track.
On the plus side there was great attention to detail in the spoken languages of French and German and the main actress who took the brunt of such challenges had great competence and reality in the portrayal of people from both of these nations and a good sense of pathos and comedy. I also liked the First Winter scene for it's honesty in portrayal and the shooting party for its clarity and humour. In general the nostalgic songs were sung with gusto and warmth. The solos from the boy soldiers were genuinely touching. Exceptional work had been done on the scene with the Suffragettes. If all of the show had this clarity of intention and tightness then it would have been very well done.
The sound effects of machine guns and other bombardments are terrifying in their unexpected entrances and volume.
Overall as a reviewer I would consider that this is a surprisingly challenging piece to present and I would commend those involved for presenting a theatre work that reveals the reality of war. This frantic jigsaw of a piece of theatre at the Arts Theatre may not have all the pieces in place to make a perfect picture but I feel that the companies heart is in the creation. In the café bar there is a fantastic display about unknown aspects of WW1. Definitely worth a look.