Brave Tommies and dim earls — Oh What a Lovely War is hoity-toity reductionism

Plus: How to spend the night with Tennessee Williams in three rooms at the Langham Hotel

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

Oh What a Lovely War

Stratford East, until 15 March

The Hotel Plays

Langham Hotel, until 8 March

Here it is. Fifty years late. Oh What a Lovely War was originally staged at Stratford East in 1964. It returns to its birthplace to cash in on this year’s anniversary of the Great War. Sorry, I meant commemorate. The title is so familiar that one overlooks its callow, misanthropic glibness. Does anyone think war ‘lovely’? The show’s narrator sprints through the causes of the conflict, and its chief battles, without offering any historical insight. Music-hall songs and comedy stereotypes trundle past on a conveyor belt of laughter and slaughter.

The show was inspired by angry dogmatist Joan Littlewood, who wanted to sock it to R.C. Sherriff for writing a hit play, Journey’s End, that overlooked working-class infantrymen. But her creation is strangely besotted with nobs. The only figure who achieves a personality is Earl Haig, who comes across as a dim-witted, self-deluding disposer of innocent life. We need a musical to tell us that? The other characters flounder in banality: brave Tommies, sad Belgians, uppity Krauts, sweet flower girls, shouty colonels, scheming war profiteers, poncy Frenchmen. One sketch shows a circle of posh capitalists gloating over their income from munitions and praying that the conflict will endure for ever. But virtually every citizen in the country had a relative killed or injured, and to portray the governing classes as rapacious psychopaths preying on helpless underlings is neither history nor satire. It’s just rage misdirected.

The show’s visual mannerisms are a little patchy. The men’s costumes are disastrous, the women’s stylish and attractive. Littlewood wanted the play to emphasise life, not death and she decreed that the soldiers must dress in billowing white clownwear with minstrel buttons down the front. They flap around in their pyjamas like an identity parade of Andy Pandys. Very bizarre. Overhead, the casualty figures are flashed up on a train announcement board that is hardly the most poignant means of conveying such tragic details. Some of the totals are wrong. The first day of the Somme cost 20,000 British servicemen their lives. The figure given here, 60,000, mistakenly includes the injured. The train announcement board also reveals that ‘21,000 Americans became millionaires’ during the war. The implication seems to be that every last one of those Yankee devils amassed his fortune by personally sucking the blood from working-class English heroes expiring in the corpse-strewn topsoil of Flanders. Bunch of fascists. This kind of hoity-toity reductionism does nobody any favours.

Site-specific theatre is the revenge of actors on audiences. Experimental troupes like to hire derelict foundries or firebombed prisons and put on ‘promenade performances’ that unfold in mildewed hallways and unplastered alcoves. The watching play-goers, unsettled and suspicious, are prodded and shoved from one scene to the next by teams of scowling ushers. Sometimes there’s no script at all, just a vague theme and a lot of actors madly improvising around it.

I tend to sprint in the opposite direction when invited to a show not staged in a theatre but what drew me to The Hotel Plays is that the settings and the locations are the same. Three rooms in the Langham Hotel, off Regent Street, provide the settings for these rarely seen playlets by Tennessee Williams. The Pink Bedroom, set in the 1950s, is a tale of broken romance between a restless mistress and an ageing stud. It’s good but it’s the kind of thing Williams could write in his sleep. If it weren’t for the hilarious twist at the end it might not be worth reviving. The other two plays are little artistic miracles. Green Eyes follows a handsome young couple on their honeymoon in New Orleans. Each suspects the other of infidelity. They wake up in bed, side by side, but not touching. She says, ‘I want breakfast.’ He says, ‘I want an explanation.’ That’s a great way to open a drama. What follows is a brutal and horribly honest deconstruction of marriage as a contest for sexual and financial assets. The script becomes a tad overheated in the final moments but the actors, Gethin Anthony and Aisling Loftus, are thrilling to watch.

The last play, Sunburst, is horrible, tragic, silly and hilarious all at once. A fading, bedridden Hollywood star is approaching death in a glamorous hotel. On her fat finger sits a priceless ‘sunburst’ diamond. Two thieves disguised as waiters worm their way into her affections and attempt to steal the ring. But they can’t budge it from her finger so they plan to kill her, tear the stone from her hand and throw her body from the hotel roof in order to disguise the theft. She lies in bed, incapacitated but indomitable, and offers sarcastic comments on their proposal to bump her off. The set-up is exquisite. The only sadness is that the play is so short.

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Show comments
  • La Fold

    Ill be honest, and if it makes me a stunted human being, then all the better, but the thought of an evening at the theatre seeing anything else but a Blues Brothers Revue fills me with dread.

  • “Does anyone think war ‘lovely’? ”

    It’s ironic dear. Irony.

    • tjamesjones

      Do you mean sarcastic? What is ironic about it?

      • Irony: “Conveyance of meaning (generally satirical) by words whose literal meaning is the opposite, esp words of praise used as a criticism or condemnation”

        • tjamesjones

          That’s just sarcasm Paddy. Sarcasm and mockery. Not the noblest way to remember the men who died for this country in WW1. To repeat, the death rates of public schoolboys exceeded that of the ordinary soldier, they do not deserve to be mocked.

          • I have no idea what you are on about. What is “Sarcasm and Mockery” – the whole production of “Oh What a Lovely War”? And what’s all this “Public Schoolboy” death rate stuff. So what? The original production of this masterpiece made a hugely valid series of ironic observations about the Great War. Of course any serious student of the War needs more than OWALW – but no serious student can avoid seeing it. I urge you to go.

          • tjamesjones

            Oh What a Lovely war is just bitter 60s leftism, it’s not history. But if you’re a student of cultural history, try David Reynold’s “The Long Shadow”, he quotes an Old Etonian Guards officer Viscount Chandos on that play “we, by which I mean both officers and men…thought we were fighting in a worthy cause, and had no idea that our efforts would one day appear to Miss Littlewood as merely absurd.” I want no part in that mockery. And if you’re convinced as the play pretends that the toffs got off lightly, try that book, or more to the point “6 weeks” which a book documenting the fate of the public school boys who signed up as officers, and lasted on average 6 weeks in the height of the war. Sarcasm and mockery are not the right response.

          • You just don’t get it do you? The “Lions led by Donkeys” description is a valid comment used, amongst others, by that icon of “Leftism” Alan Clark. OWALW dramatised that legitimate position. It is not the only position, nor is it a complete one. But it is a valid one. Put it on the table with other inputs and draw your own conclusions. But to dismiss it contemptuously as you do is simply wrong. By the way have you actually SEEN the play ?

          • tjamesjones

            But it’s not “simply wrong” to mock officers who died for this country is it Paddy? You tell me I just don’t get it, and you don’t understand why I’m talking about the death rates of officers (why would anybody raise such a point!? What context could that have!?!) but you do know what I mean, don’t you.

          • Very few of the “Donkeys” died. OWALW was not aimed at “Officers” but at those at the very top of the hierarchy, Haig etc., who sent men to their deaths in huge numbers. Young officers and ordinary ranks included. It was not anti officer but anti those who were protected from the “Pity of War” – the Generals whose inept leadership prolonged the conflict and caused so much tragedy. Few of those died, they were rarely in the front line and saw the slaughter from a comfortable distance, surrounded by their “Staff officers” who were equally protected. Yes it was not just the ordinary Tommy who died and thousands of lower-ranked officers perished as well – but not the Generals who were a legitimate target of Joan Littlewood’s brilliant satire.

          • tjamesjones

            Right, that’s fair enough, but I have never seen a convincing proposal for an alternative military strategy that might have worked better. And as it turned out, eventually, the generals did figure out a way to put enough pressure on the German army to end the war. There is no reason why the tiny British army at the start of the war should be expected to have overcome the Germans at all, let alone quickly. I don’t mind if someone does have an alternative strategy that they posit, but I’ve never seen a convincing one.
            But on the subject of mockery I’m not giving any quarter. The way that OWALW entered the public consciousness is as class warfare and leads directly to black adder, where it is not absent generals but present upper class twits, who are mocked. Read the account in “6 weeks” and see if you really want to be a part of that. It’s not history, it’s 60s politics.

          • Thanks for discussion. You make perfectly valid points. But do see OWALW – it’s Swiftian! Its’s not history though I agree.