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Oh, What a Lovely War
Published on Sunday, 26 August 2012
4

4 stars

theSpace on Niddry St (venue website)
Theatre
20, 22, 24 Aug, 12:20pm-1:50pm; 21, 23, 25 Aug, 10:45am-12:15pm
Reviewed by Will Howard

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.
 Free and unticketed. No pre-booking required.

When theatrical productions are revived, the goal is often to retell the same story in an entirely different way – one that reflects the era in which it is being performed. In contrast, Oh! What a Lovely War is one of the few cases where its success is judged by how well it can immerse the audience in its original period, the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Most productions of Joan Littlewood’s infamous adapted satire contain the vast majority of her 1963 details – from the actors dressed as Pierrot clowns, the use of a Master of Ceremonies, to the surprisingly bawdy period songs – and things are no different here, in this production brought to this year’s Fringe by the students of the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. So the real question in reviewing Oh! What A Lovely War is how a production that, on the surface, so resembles the original, can feel unique and memorable in its own right?

It’s a question that’s expertly answered by this production. The key is that the script to Oh! What a Lovely War is essentially an outline of how each scene should go, with everything else left up to the company to make their own. The students of Italia Conti have taken this idea to heart. Visually, it looks very much like your average production of Lovely War, but it soon becomes clear that the focus is on the musical side of things. The many, many songs are performed with skill, style and panache by the company, Lauren Roberts’ spirited take on I’ll Make a Man of You in particular stopping the show halfway through its running time.

But the whole company were adept at the musical performance – swapping instruments to make up the backing band, singing and dancing to an incredibly high standard. The acting was also strong the whole way through, with whole characters being created by nothing more than a hat and a posture. The company managed to make the show’s many dramatic tonal shifts feel natural and hard-hitting.

I’m afraid my only criticism is rather specific, but it does stop this great production from becoming excellent. Littlewood’s original version was heavily influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht, and one of his main techniques was to make what was happening on stage as obvious to the audience as possible. The problem with this production was that to really understand what was going on, you would need a pretty deep understanding of the original, and an awareness of the history of the First World War. Case in point: many of the characters in the play are personifications of countries and from time to time it’s hard to decipher which ones they are. This does not stop it from being an enjoyable watch – far from it – but in such a fast-paced production, it does get a mite confusing from time to time.

However, this is still a seriously impressive production, that manages to juggle the hysterical and the harrowing elements of the play better than just about any other version I’ve ever seen. And most importantly, it feels unique; it feels like no other production of Lovely War around. That’s what makes this so impressive and well worth anyone’s time and money.

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