The standard current interpretation of the First World War is one of the gallant common people betrayed by an ineffective and outdated ruling class – “lions led by donkeys”. At a distance of 100 years it can be hard to know to what extent this version of events has been informed by political expediency and popular culture – Marx, MASH and Blackadder have all played their part in writing the narrative. But the central theme is old as human history – war is hell, and ordinary folk suffer at the whims of their masters.
Oh! What a Lovely War! set out in the 60s to reinforce this message, using satire and comedy to make its point and, in the hundredth anniversary year of the Armistice, Ravensbury Players’ production is a timely revival. Taking their cues from the original Theatre Workshop production, as well as from Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film, the Players successfully repeated the trick of initially drawing the audience in to the excitement, patriotism and sentimentality of the start of the war, before adopting a much darker tone for a second act dominated by loss, tragedy and gallows humour. That the venue was Ramsbury’s Memorial Hall made it all the more poignant.
Although all the Company took multiple roles, Matthew Haynes excelled as the Narrator, and John Barker and Mark Davies did a great double act portraying the strategic, political and personal tensions between Field Marshal Haig and Sir John French. Director David Mayer’s Drill Sergeant nearly stole his own show, and there was an enjoyable slice of bilingual banter courtesy of Mark Davies and Tom Jeffrey – outrageous accents all round (and some relief on the Raven’s part that our school French was up to scratch so we could follow it!) Sam Wells took on Maggie Smith’s role as the music hall diva, and Rachel Greenway was a very convincing Sylvia Pankhurst, preaching pacifism to a then hostile public.
The younger members of the Company were also fantastic, not least in the ensemble parts, and notwithstanding that this is hardly a family show. The singing and live accompaniment was as good as we’ve come to expect (and the audience sing-alongs were, needless to say, pitch perfect!) The minimalist set and projected images from the trenches worked well alongside the often upbeat musical numbers.
The Raven flapped home with an odd mixture of feelings – humming a few of the jaunty tunes, chuckling at some of the jokes, yet haunted by the score-card of dead and wounded and the scenes of individual suffering and struggle for survival. This is, of course, exactly what the play intends and it’s a credit to the Players that they managed the right, bittersweet balance between the gravity of the message and the frivolity of the medium.