It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. What started out as an adventure that would only last a couple of months, ended four years later with 10 million dead, 21 million wounded and seven million men missing.
The unspeakable horrors of World War I are never more graphically portrayed than in a jolly little comedy musical called Oh What A Lovely War-The Musical (minus an exclamation mark which is reserved for the film of almost the same name).
Joan Littlewood’s ground-breaking, iconic, satire exposing the vulgarity of war, shocked audiences when it made its debut at Theatre Royal Stratford East more than 20 years ago.
Terry Johnson’s gritty revival has lost none of its edge. It opened at Littlewood’s old East London venue last year to mark the centenary of the start of The Great War and is now touring the UK.
This week the troops were mobilised at The Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, and, while the production still has the capacity to stun, it seemed lost in the cavernous interior of one of Britain’s newest theatres.
Former Corrie stars Ian Reddington and Wendi Peters lead the company in what is essentially a polemic against war, cleverly presented as an end-of-pier, musical hall show.
Littlewood, and her partner Gerry Raffles, took a collection of soldiers’ songs and created a story around them. While the players sing tunes and tell jokes there is a video panel in the background recording the appalling casualties suffered during the four-year engagement.
The war itself is reduced to a game, albeit, a deadly one. “The Great War Game,” presented by Reddington’s cynical narrator/MC (the cast of 12 play a variety of roles throughout) comes in several rounds, each more horrific than the last.
The players are the buffoonish Brits, the vodka-swilling Russians, the arrogant Hun, the French and the honourable little Belgians.
Alex Giannini, sporting a series of outlandish moustaches, plays the Johnny Foreigners with cartoonish exaggeration while Christopher Villiers is burdened with reserved Brits and the onus of portraying General Douglas Haig whose ill-advised decisions resulted in catastrophic fatalities.
Wendi Peters is the well-upholstered Edwardian lady (very Hyacinth Bucket) but also gets to show off a surprisingly magnificent singing voice during the vintage numbers.
Reddington plays the fool (literally. Dressed as a Pierrot he tells jokes, imitates the gibberish spouted on parade by RSMs and, like many a poor fool, takes his place on the front line as an unknown soldier).
There are stand-out moments like scenes when gas was first introduced and the now classic story of the Xmas armistice on the front line when German and British troops swapped gifts and played football.
I was appalled to learn, the war created 21,000 US millionaires. It turns out industrialists from rival countries continued to trade with British hand grenades featuring Krupp fuses.
But it’s hard not to be swayed by those figures passing by on the back panel. Time and again you read of 10,000 dead, 60,000 dead and more with no German losses or no land gained.
Haig ordered men to march defiantly through the front lines only for them to be cut down. The average life expectancy of a machine-gunner under attack was just four minutes.
The levity of the variety show is sharply contrasted with the sobriety of statistics.
Oh What A Lovely War, with nicely observed performances from the entire ensemble, lifts its head above the parapet to honour and salutes the millions of Tommies who died while leading a full-frontal assault on the officers and governments who allowed it to happen.