A cornerstone of modern musical theatre and one of Britain's greatest stage satires, Oh What a Lovely War has been revived for a 60th anniversary tour by Blackeyed Theatre and visits Lighthouse Poole on Thursday 1 and Friday 2 February.
The epic anti-war musical was conceived and developed by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in 1963 and remains a classic of modern theatre with a fusion of timeless songs – including Pack Up Your Troubles and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary – razor-sharp satire and high jinks, offering a satirical account of the First World War as seen through the eyes of the common soldier.
Here, director Nicky Allpress sheds some light on the new touring production...
You’ve chosen a circus as a setting for your production of Oh What A Lovely War. How did you come to that decision and what do you hope audience get from it?
It seemed natural to me. That war as a concept is a circus of a kind, not only the Great War, but every war since. Not only does the original material lend itself perfectly to a troupe of entertainers of every discipline and talent, from the Ringmaster to the clowns, it’s also the perfect backdrop in terms of design and aesthetic – worn out tent filled with the ammunition to put on the show your company have been rehearsed to perform, travelling away from home and singing songs and performing tricks to boost morale.
What do you think our relationship is with a piece like Oh What A Lovely War in 2023, and how has that informed your approach to directing it?
There are so many moments in so many scenes that resonate as if they had been written by a satirist in 2023. The same heroes and villains are pulling the same tricks, from the politicians and the arms profiteers to the effect media propaganda has on the man on the street. It’s a witty and wild ride, with as many contemporary gags as there are nostalgic songs. It’s rich material that conjures so many parallels with the on going tragedies of war torn countries today.
How does performing the play with a cast of six (as opposed to the prescribed 15 plus band) impact the audience experience in your view?
I think it brings the audience closer. The theatrical act of quick changes, swapping voices and accents as actors move from one character or instrument to the next, breaks the stiff formal boundary that traditional plays can create. We know it’s illusion, and from the very moment the audience walk in, they’re faced with a troop of six very playful performers warming up and unpacking their props. There’s no grand barrier between them and us – we’re all in it together.
What do you want audiences to come away from the show with?
I hope first and foremost they will feel entertained, but I hope they’ll also feel deeply moved from laughter to tears. There’s no preaching, just a group of light-hearted circus cabaret acts showing us how ridiculous humans are to fight, when we could be united in dancing and singing.
Oh What A Lovely War plays Lighthouse on Thursday 1 and Friday 2 February. Tickets available now.