What immediately grabs your attention as you walk into the theatre at Southwark Playhouse Borough is the set. Designed by Victoria Spearing, you find yourself inside a circus tent, made out of shabby-looking canvas with bunting and fairy lights. The lights flicker on and off, depending on what’s happening in the scene. It is a powerful moment when the first explosion happens; the bulbs flash manically, before the audience is plunged into darkness.
The set reinforces the idea of the futility of war. It’s a farce, a circus run by incompetent, yet powerful people. Emphasising this theme, the cast wear Pierrot costumes designed by Naomi Gibbs. They have been slightly updated to give a more modern feel but the striped tights and pantaloons are still present.
At times it is difficult to follow what’s happening. This is because there isn’t a traditional linear plot, but rather a series of short scenes meshed together. The cast play several characters and each costume change clearly signifies someone new, but it can be confusing to remember who’s who. Additionally, a disadvantage of this is that we don’t get to spend enough time with one character for the actor to really make it their own.
There are six in the cast and they are creative with the various characters they play. One notable moment depicts a ball scene where the cast hold up dresses and sway with them, as if they were their dance partners. With one arm through the sleeve of a ball gown, whilst the second holds the other sleeve, they have conversations with the dresses, hilariously entertaining the audience.
The slapstick humour and jovial war time tunes contrast with the jarring statistics that are projected up on the circus tent. The audience is frequently reminded of the death toll of each operation. One particularly shocking fact was that when under attack, the life expectancy of a machine gunner was four minutes.
The actors are talented, singing and playing several instruments each. It was a joyful relief to join in with the cast and sing ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers’. The cast are at their best harmonising together, although Chioma Uma has to have a special mention for her rendition of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ towards the end of the show.
Oh What a Lovely War presents a strong message about the futility of war. It is an entertaining, satirical musical that’s as comically funny as it is devastating.
Written by: Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles, and members of the original cast
Directed by: Nicky Allpress
Set designed by: Victoria Spearing
Costumes designed by: Naomi Gibbs
Oh What a Lovely War plays at Southwark Playhouse until 9 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.