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Oh What A Lovely War
Theatre Royal, London E15
How well has Oh What A Lovely War, that iconic collaboration between Charles Chilton, Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles, survived the ravages of half a century since its first production in 1963?
The answer is that it is as hale and hearty as ever and remains one of the most powerful anti-war dramas ever. This improbable collision of form and content still sends out an unexpected explosion of dramatic intensity.
At its opening, we're greeted by a troupe of pierrots who banter and play lightheartedly and engagingly with us before we're transported to the first world war front and immersed in the horrors of that conflict.
Simply by donning helmets and jackets over their pierrot costumes, they present us with Tommies, Germans or French soldiers, generals and businessmen. Making full use of creative lighting techniques and the sounds of gunshot and detonations, we are in the trenches with the troops on the Somme, at Ypres and Verdun.
The story of the war is told in short, snappy episodes, interrupted by the songs of the time - full of pathos, earthy humour and irony - and jolly cabaret routines. Even Michael Gove makes a fleeting photographic appearance as a donkey at the beginning.
In true Brechtian style, and despite tearful and poignant moments, we are not allowed to wallow in sentiment but forced to confront the harsh realities of an incompetent ruling class indifferent to human misery and mass slaughter.
On a moor in Scotland we see businessmen having a pop at grouse while discussing their war profits and expressing their fears of an early peace.
An army chaplain tells the troops that God is on their side and, despite mounting losses, the generals order the troops forward regardless.
In the background above the stage, rolling text on a panel gives the unbelievable numbers of dead as the weeks and months pass.
There is not a minute of boredom with this excellent ensemble in which there are no stars or main roles. They keep us transfixed with their bursting energy and enthusiasm, easy banter, dancing and singing.
The leader of the troupe at the end brings us back to the present by reminding us that this war game has continued since that century-old conflict and is still being played today.
A really must-see drama. It can't be recommended strongly enough.
Runs until March 15. Box office: (020) 8534-0310.
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