It’s a century since the outbreak of World War I, The Great War, The War to End All Wars. Today, the horrors of that catastrophic events are common knowledge. We are not surprised by stories of life (and death) in the trenches that led to little gain, or of miscalculations and breakdowns in communication that led to massive loss. We are used to revisionist history, and desensitised to images of the horrors of war.
When Joan Littlewood wrote her iconic Oh, What a Lovely War! – only half a century after the end of that war – she created a show that contrasted horrific statistics with the greasepaint of Pierrot. It was the start of the Vietnam War, which would bring a new wave of horror, and the world was beginning to rethink the generally accepted view of wars past.
In this production, Renegade Theatre have created a setting somewhere between a Vaudeville stage, a town hall variety show, and a silent film theatre. In a musical like this, it would be easy to end up as disjointed and non-linear as an episode of Monte Python’s Flying Circus, without the humour. This has the Python farce, the storyline of good vaudeville, and enough rough bits of styling to reflect the ramshackle management of the war it reflects on.
There were a few technical issues, like the stage’s apron not being covered by microphones, and loose lighting occasionally making performers’ facial features difficult to distinguish. There was also a significant difference in the standard of some performances, which was sometimes jarring. On the whole, though, the production worked beautifully.
Standout performances came from David Price and Mark Doggett, whose vocal quality, sincere connections and comic timing brought a lovely humanity to the piece. Dianne Algate should have also been a highlight, but her makeup stole all definition from her face and made it difficult to follow her connections.
This was the first war to be recorded by photographers, and the projections bring the opportunity to highlight this. With a piano side-of-screen, there was a beautiful opportunity here to play the projections like silent movie headlines. Unfortunately, the use of a right-to-left scrolling marquee meant many of the important facts were lost to the audience.
The show worked best at moments when the performance caught the imperfect, yet polished, sincere and farcical essence of Vaudeville and early 20th Century town hall entertainment. This is the era of Chaplin. Slapstick and sincerity are not mutually exclusive.
For this show to work, the cast have to maintain the delicate balance of heightened action and human connection. For the most part, they did. It was a fitting tribute, on the hundredth anniversary of WWI.
Director: Benjamin Fuller Musical Director: Jonathan Harvey Cast: Brigid DeNeefe, Melinda Frith, Ezel Doruk, Paul Dawber, Mark Doggett, David Price, Jacob Grech, Hayley Barker, James Brennan, Chris Gaffney
Oh, What A Lovely War!
New Ballroom – Trades Hall Council, 54 Victoria Street, Carlton
Performance: Sunday 3 August 2014 – 2.00pm
Season: 24 July – 3 August 2014
For more information, visit: www.renegadetheatre.org for details.
Image: courtesy of Renegade Theatre
Review: Jennifer Piper