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A Century On: Stille Nacht? Oh What a Lovely War.

by on 20 December 2016

Oh What a Lovely War

by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop

Richmond Shakespeare Society.

Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham.  10th to 17th   December 2016

Review by Mary Stoakes

Joan Littlewood’s ‘Musical Entertainment’ was instrumental in the 1960s  in informing many of the tragedy that was World War One with its unimaginable horrors and loss of life on both sides – all borne with resignation and great fortitude by the ordinary soldiers and the people at home.     In 2016 we have, through television, books and film, a much greater knowledge of these times but the show still retains a shocking and emotional impact.

The scheme of the original production was for some of the events of WWI to be narrated through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot show.  RSS director, Louise Stenson, chose a different setting for this series of sketches, dances and songs – a mix of music hall and circus with the dominating presence of Lisette Barlow as the MC-Ringmistress in charge.    This  format worked well with the depressing mood evoked by the back projected statistics (these could have shown for longer at the Mary Wallace for greater emphasis) contrasted and lightened by the irrepressible stoicism and good humour of the troops as demonstrated in their songs and sketches.


Photograph by Nicola Franklin, The Camera Girls Photography

One man (and woman!) in their time play many parts’ –  Yes,  this  was a true ensemble piece with 10 actors all playing many roles with a variety of accents, a few props and small additions to their white boiler suits. From a company which specialises in drama, much of the singing was excellent, especially in the choruses and group numbers.

It is invidious to single out individuals in this polished and accomplished team but special mention must be made of Tom Nunan and Jennifer Packham, both newcomers to RSS, and Robin Legard, well known for his expertise in musicals with various local companies.  Another highlight was the playing by Lisette Barlow and the cast in the famously incomprehensible drill routine scene.

The scenes with the Generals, detached from reality and more involved with their own careers, and the international business men ‘doing very nicely’ were less successful than those which commentated on life on the home front and in the trenches, underlined with musical numbers.    Particularly poignant was the Christmas 1914 scene with the soldiers on both sides exchanging gifts and songs.  The singing of Stille Nacht from the rear of the theatre was a magical and moving moment, made all the more so by the coarser and contrasting British response.  The excellent grouping and lighting for this scene made it most memorable.

In Act II the grim realities of the war take hold, gunfire becomes more insistent and the lyrics more bitter and ironic.  In the church service, with the versatile Lisette Barlow as the Vicar, the subversive rewriting of the hymns was beautifully put across.

‘They’ll never believe me’ the cast sang at the end of the show – but we did indeed, for we had been reminded once again of the horrors of the First World War in a very different way by this excellent and moving production.

Mary Stoakes

December 2016





From → Drama, Musicals, Reviews

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