Review: Oh What a Lovely War, Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, until April 4

Roger Jackaman in Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War.
NOT FOR RESALE

Roger Jackaman in Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. NOT FOR RESALE - Credit: Lucy Taylor

Oh What a Lovely War, presented by Gallery Players, Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, until April 4

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War.

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

The timing is perfect. Soon, with blanket coverage of almost every aspect of the First World War brought into sharp focus on television, we may be quickly satiated with the subject, but right now Gallery Players’ choice of spring musical hits the centenary spot.

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War.
NOT FOR RESALE

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. NOT FOR RESALE - Credit: Lucy Taylor

Director James Hayward has followed fairly closely Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop production, but not too slavishly. The cast are all dressed as pierrot clowns as they were in 1963 at Stratford East but he’s cleverly updated some of the jokes and his show trots briskly along with the panache of a cavalry troupe.

Phil Cory (l) and Martin Leigh in Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War.

Phil Cory (l) and Martin Leigh in Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

The John Mills doesn’t have the room for anything extravagant but this team of five women and seven men, driven only by Joe Cleary’s innovative keyboards and a set of drums, still manage to give this masterpiece of musical irony a big feel.

The story it tells is familiar with wonderfully clueless generals and the poor bloody infantry putting on a constant brave face bubbling with good humour. And as the po-faced staff officers talk blandly about the next big push being the one that will send the Boche scuttling back to Berlin, a big screen spells out the latest appalling death toll – thousands killed for a few yards gained or, more often no advance whatsoever.


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But these figures are really the only sad part of the show because it’s the music that matters and the lovely WW1 hits, beautifully delivered, come hot on the heels of one another, some melancholy, some bawdy but mostly inspiringly upbeat. There are neat dances and well thought-out movement which produces fine ensemble work, particularly in The Bells of Hell, They Were Only Playing Leap Frog and the driving title song.

The Merry Roosters pierrot showsters have to play all the parts, the English, the French, the Germans, the Russians as well as West End singing stars and nurses near the front, sliding swiftly into each new role with nothing more than a change of hat or headdress. And they do it with great aplomb.

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Martin Leigh is one minute spouting French and the next he’s popped on a moustache to be Field Marshal Douglas Haig and Phil Cory transforms from Private Tommy Atkins into Sir John French as well as playing the glottal accented Kaiser Bill in spiked helmet.

Sam Horsfield sings enticingly to the chaps that she’ll make a man of them if they’ll only take the King’s shilling and join up; Emily Watt gets the audience enthusiastically involved with Sister Suzie – the tongue-twisting words up on the screen and Roger Jackaman is a cracking MC.

Stephanie Brown, Mike Cook, Ruth Hayward, Laura Lucock, Tom Mayhew, Matt Soper and Steve Watt all play their various parts extremely well in this delightful and occasionally moving piece of theatre.

DAVID HENSHALL.

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