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Blackeyed Theatre’s latest production is a classic retelling of the First World War and can’t help but remind us that conflict is always with us, somewhere in the world.

It’s 60 years since director Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop first staged the original production of Oh What a Lovely War. Back then in 1963 when it was already over 40 years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18. Now, over 100 years after the start of the conflict, it still feels necessary to revisit and re-examine the way that the situation escalated out of control.

The ensemble cast of six talented multi-instrumental actor/musicians worked with the determination of conscripts to retell the story of WWI. The show embodies a heavily narrative script, intricate direction, stylised movement and ever-changing costume and props. Kaleidoscopic use of a few wooden boxes to subtly change one scene to the next, keep the performers constantly on the move.

The set itself is charmingly lit with strings of muted orange light bulbs and the subdued colours of the faded circus tent, like a nostalgic sepia photograph. The characters dressed in pierrot costume and white face, maintain a cheerful disposition as they mingle with the audience before the show begins, playacting around the stage as they apparently prepare for the performance. We’re lulled into believing that everything is fine and we are going to be entertained.

But although it opens with a musical number, the six performers very quickly transform to take on the roles of the leaders of countries that started the conflict and those who quickly got dragged in behind them, mainly due to existing alliances that obligated them to join in.

Another song, and the seriousness of the matter is momentarily damped down to allow us to breathe and maybe even smile for a moment. This reflects the innocent soldiers’ endless propensity to making the best of it as they find themselves suddenly on the front line. They have no choice but to share jokes, smokes and whatever tiny moments of joy they can manifest.

I Don’t Want to be a Soldier is a catchy tune sung with almost childlike enthusiasm and regimented marching, but the reality hits home as the action reverts to the trenches.

The often familiar songs of the war pepper the action and swing the audience’s emotions between dark and light, tragedy and comedy.

I Don’t Want to be a Soldier is a catchy tune sung with almost childlike enthusiasm and regimented marching, but the reality hits home as the action reverts to the trenches. The soldiers gunned down at point blank range move grotesquely in slow motion prolonging the moments we must look and not recoil from the horror.

The actors not only all played multiple instruments at different times in the action, but also took on the accents of the Germans, French, Russians and others, as they methodically relayed the series of discussions, negotiations and events. Sometimes the accents made it hard to grasp the dialogue, which detracted from the narrative for moments at a time. To some extent the ear adjusts after a while but it’s not guaranteed that everyone heard every word. This was further challenged by the sometimes addition of a bed of live music underneath the action. The ambience was enhanced but sometimes to the sacrifice of hearing vital dialogue.

A subtle addition to the original script in Act 2 taps us on the shoulder to remind us that what we have watched might be history but actually it’s not over yet. The final song, delivered in poignant and mournful mood, hits home with its harsh and painful message.

And so the final applause for this well-crafted production cannot be rapturous but just reflective.
You can catch Oh What a Lovely War at 2.30pm and 7.30pm performances today 2nd March at the Grand Theatre.

Tickets available from the website or box office.

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