There’s “sting-a-ling-a-ling” (to co-opt this musical’s own term) still aplenty in “Oh What a Lovely War,” the 1963 musical vaudeville that dared to expose the farce as well as the horror that is war. The worry, of course, was whether Joan Littlewood’s groundbreaking piece of theatrical populism would hold up 35 years later amid a climate that is getting its images of combat undoctored , as it were, in films like “Saving Private Ryan.” To be sure, there are moments when the facetiousness palls, and one wants to rout a surfeit of ironic whimsy. But it’s to director Fiona Laird’s abiding credit that a legend in its own time continues to speak to ours.
For all its apparent larkiness, this production knows how to go in for the kill. The project was conceived for the Royal National Theater’s education department and toured regionally under their auspices in the spring. In London, it is reopening a space (the once-vaunted Roundhouse), in its way no less an essential part of local theater history than the show itself. The choice of venue preserves the circus feel of the show, lending a jaunty ambiance to shocks that are at first stealthily, then viscerally achieved.
In its own knockabout way, “Oh What a Lovely War” was and remains a requiem, and it’s hardly sentiment alone that resulted in a (for London, unusual) ovation.
Richard Attenborough directed a starry 1969 film of the show that, in many people’s eyes, gets the attack of the piece wrong. Littlewood’s point, of course , was to fold her critique within a “pierrot” show of, and for, the theater that would appear as the kind of freewheeling end-of-pier entertainment that gets sent up in plays like “Noises Off.”
Emcee David Arneil emerges on to Tom Piper’s billowing sheet of a set in blouse and pantaloons to warm up the crowd, promising songs, jokes, battles and what are innocently described as “war games.” But it’s the subversive nature of the conceit never to be more serious than when most bumptious so as to get at the epic absurdity of the so-called Great (or First World) War.
“Oh What a Lovely War” was largely devised during rehearsals by the original company, who transferred with the production from Littlewood’s Stratford East home theater to the West End and then to Broadway. (Littlewood herself lost the best director Tony to Jerome Robbins for “Fiddler on the Roof.”) Laird’s separate gift is to have a company (mostly) far too young to connect in any arena other than the imagination with the events at hand and yet possessed of the requisite looks and ages to give pathos to the various fates of the recruits — and their women back home.
While one or two actors (Paul J. Medford among them) could have more bite, and though a few stronger voices would not go amiss, it’s as a collective that the cast works best, playing all sides of a conflict whose lunacy might be funny if it weren’t so grim. (Cheers, too, to the excellent onstage band of music director Neil McArthur.)
Often, the tone suggests the Keystone Kops crossed with Brecht, whose own interest in class informs the piece throughout: a corporal bawls gibberish at his men, furious that they are taller than he is; the war’s murderous start in Sarajevo here becomes a game of “find the anarchist”; a “what/quoi” routine hints at the Babel of army life as it might be rewritten by the Marx Brothers. Hymns give way to popular music and then to doggerel and back again, the audience singing along one minute and silent the next. And however stylized the sketch, it is always anchored in history: projections (which could be sharper) monitor war’s actual — and entirely mirthless — carnage, while dot-matrix announcements remind us of those lost in the first war to introduce trench warfare and poison gas.
David Hare and Caryl Churchill are just two writers who can be seen to have amplified and amended the approach at work here, and there will be those theatrical sophisticates who think the conception just too naive. But amid the hyper-realism of today’s treatments of similar topics, it’s possible to be struck by a decades-old aesthetic sideswipe. Indeed, it’s the lasting achievement of “Oh What a Lovely War” to risk making a carnival out of carnage and then, just when we’re laughing, to freeze any smile on the audience’s face.