Oh What a Lovely War

Oh What a Lovely War (1963) overview

Oh What a Lovely War was created by visionary director Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop ensemble in 1963. It was inspired by a Charles Chilton radio series that combined statistics about the First World War with versions of songs from the time in which new lyrics about the war were set to hymns and music hall hits. Littlewood’s partner and collaborator Gerry Raffles had the initial idea to adapt Chilton’s show for the stage. Littlewood was resistant at first, but eventually warmed to the idea.

The show was created through a process of improvisation, and is credited as having been written by the company.

Littlewood dressed her cast in white satin Pierrot costumes as she did not want to use military uniforms. A screen above the stage supplied a stream of statistics, including the number of dead at the Battle of the Somme. These appalling figures play out in ironic contrast to the scenes of song and good cheer below.

As well as the title number, the songs include ‘It's a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Pack up Your Troubles’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. There are times when the audience is invited to join in with the singing, but the sentimental is always juxtaposed with the harrowing reality of the war.

Key productions of Oh What a Lovely War

Oh What a Lovely War premiered at Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford East in March 1963. The reviews were mixed. The Times was haughty but Kenneth Tynan deemed it a triumph in The Observer.

A transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End followed, and the show was also adapted for radio. It premiered on Broadway in 1964. Richard Attenborough made his directorial debut with the 1969 film version of the musical, but Littlewood was not taken with the results.

In his book The State of the Nation, theatre critic Michael Billington admired the way the play combined oral history with radical political theatre, while, in her autobiography, Littlewood recalled how the production ‘awakened race memory in our audiences’.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, a revival was mounted at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2014.

Related articles

An introduction to Oh What a Lovely War

Article by:
Michael Billington
20th-century theatre, Art, music and popular culture, Power and conflict, Theatre practitioners and genres

In its emphasis on the perspective of ordinary soldiers and its use of crinolines and clown costumes, Oh What a Lovely War departed from previous portrayals of the First World War. Michael Billington examines the ideas and sources that shaped the play, and discusses the contradictory emotions it provokes in audiences.

An introduction to Joan Littlewood's theatre practice

Article by:
Eleanor Dickens
20th-century theatre, Theatre practitioners and genres

Joan Littlewood's theatre companies were collaborative, experimental and politically engaged. Eleanor Dickens introduces the beliefs and experiences that led Littlewood develop her ideas about what theatre should and could do.

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