Friday, 6 June 2014

REVIEW - Oh What a Lovely War

'Oh What a Lovely War' is the story of WWI told through comedy, drama and song. It's a difficult play to produce as it walks the fine line between humour and tragedy, and deals with a vast and complicated subject.

Luckily, director David Brammer and his cast did a fantastic job, respectfully commemorating those who lost their lives while also using the play's satirical elements to comment on the absurdity of war.

The unfolding historical drama is set against a series of contemporary songs, which give the show a real 'end of the pier' feel, despite the darker themes. The realisation that so many men died during the campaign was a particularly sobering one and – as you might expect – the humour in this show is pitch black.

At the beginning, this dark comedy caught the audience off-guard and some of the early jokes fell a little flat. However, the skilled ensemble cast deftly manoeuvred between comic skits and moments of high pathos, and any unevenness in tone was quickly dispelled within the first fifteen minutes of the show.

It was nice to see some of the younger Players taking on solos. Ellie Fradley sang 'Hitchy-Koo' with great style, while Bertie Ellison and Ben Robinson did well as young soldiers, each singing their own number about the struggle between fear and patriotism. It was also lovely to see Georgia Smith take on a more substantial role, and her rendition of the tongue twisting song 'Sister Suzie's Sewing Shirts' was great fun!

Established members of the company also got a chance to shine. Debbie Hiles gave a strong performance of the classic 'Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser' and Megan Abbott dazzled as a flirty nightclub singer trying to raise conscription rates. It was wonderful to hear Irene Whitehouse and Mike Cooke in their duet 'Roses of Picardy', while Gemma Laing's subtle, understated performance of 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' was a poignant highlight.

As always, the acting from the Players was top-notch. Richard Abel gave a great performance as bumbling General Haig, with Adrian Baxter as his long-suffering lieutenant. Steve Brooks made a formidable drill sergeant, while Mike Cooke, Leslie Judd and Allan Lord were excellent as war-mongering generals and heartless capitalists.

Hugh Pearce provided an engaging and entertaining presence as the narrator, and his conversational style was incredibly appealing. Meanwhile, Watlington Players veteran Matthew Kerslake provided comic relief, with some great moments of physical comedy, as he played a loveable, incompetent soldier.

Supporting roles were played by Jenny Baxter, Katy Beeton, Lucy Beeton, Fiona Bennett, Penny Cooke, Tracy Cumming, Jane Pearce, and Amy Sims, with excellent choreography by Penny Cooke and strong musical direction from Kate Mould. The costumes were beautifully made by Judy Parsons, and the lighting and technical design – by Barry Ayres – was imaginative and immersive.

Much of the historical information in the show was provided by the Downham Market British Legion Club, and the statistics really gave the audience cause for contemplation long after the music had died away.

All in all, 'Oh What a Lovely War' was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment, and a fitting commemoration of WWI.

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