pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.
In February 2018, in collaboration with girls from Bishopshalt School, Harrow’s Rattigan Society staged a production of Oh! What a Lovely War. A riot of colour, dark humour and song, this revival of Joan Littlewood’s iconic musical told the story of the men and women who saved Britain, and featured classic tunes from the period, including It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Goodbyee and Keep the Home Fires Burning...
The Harrovian: Boy's Review of Oh! What a lovely war - 10 February 2018
“Director of Drama, Adam Cross’ (APC) poignant production of Oh! What a Lovely War showcased a beautifully powerful array of comedy laced with sorrow – a timely reminder of the perversities and horrors of war on the eve of the anniversary of the centenary of the Great War’s armistice. Louis Wilson (The Head Master’s) and Dan Shailer (Rendalls) as dual leads, both embodied the essence of play with their evocative, dynamic, but profoundly entertaining performances in their multitude of different roles. They were ably supported by a hugely talented diverse ensemble cast featuring students from Bishopshalt School, and our very own William Church (Head of Academic Music), Mr Hyland, SM, Mr Mitchell, and Mrs Spotswood in a band which performed alongside Harrovian actors.
Oh! What a Lovely War is fundamentally an anti-war critique of the Great War, satirising the actions of the callous war leaders through depicting the war from the perspective of the common soldier. Authentic, often cheerful, music hall songs from the war – many of which had been subtly reworded by soldiers to highlight the horrors of the fighting – featured throughout the musical, juxtaposing shocking images of the war and horrific battle statistics to highlight the perverse nature of war. The first Act of the play drew the audience into the sentimentality and propaganda of the war, with a sense of bonhomie and patriotism clearly evident. However, the anti-war theme escalated throughout the play, as the brutality of war was skilfully revealed as the jovial war games and songs of the initial scenes quickly mutated and moulded, crescendoing into a brutal final scrum where all the soldiers slowly succumbed and fell to their deaths – a particularly striking presentation of the descension of the Great War into pure attritional savagery. Hence, APC succeeded in his efforts in creating a tone that Joan Littlewood herself would have been proud of as the initial comedy slowly morphed into an illustration of the gruesome realities of war.
Wilson’s colossal performance categorised the play as he flawlessly and often spontaneously jumped between his assortment of roles with boundless energy despite his seeming appearance in almost every scene. The hilarious eccentricity in his portrayal of a grumbling and mumbling army officer brought the house down. His crazed gibberish grunts and comical consternation of his inept and suitably ill-equipped cadets sent the audience into hysterics as a piece of farcical magic. A constant presence throughout the play, Wilson began the show as he greeted the audience and passed off his corny jokes with his infectious smile, and finished it with the last speaking role as he poignantly reflected on the last year of his tenure as Headmaster.
However, not to be outdone, Shailer’s drag-queen alter ego was on full show as he played the role of the undeclared diva leader of a group of girls trying to persuade young men to enlist in army. Like a young RuPaul (the American drag queen), his beautiful recital of ‘I’ll make a man out of you’ brought the stunned audience to universal ovation as he ironically sang “it makes you proud to be a woman”. His prescient remarks about the “lights going off in Europe for the last time for many young men” mirrored one of Yossarian’s musings on the inevitability of death in war in Heller’s Catch 22, while his selfish prayer “for victory before the Americans” had a disturbing resemblance to General Patton’s respective wish to “capture Medina before the British” in the film Patton. This highlighted the unchanging selfish nature of generals in wartime as they placed glory over men’s lives in both the First and Second World Wars. Shailer’s pompous defiance as he ordered a translator and his subsequent confusion over the French river Haux and word “oui” was another particularly amusing moment.
As true stalwarts of the Rattigan Society with their seemingly permanent presence on stage throughout their time on the Hill, both Shailer and Wilson’s majestic performances were fitting swansongs for two of the finest to have ever graced the Ryan. But, in the true Harrovian sense of “The King is dead (or in this case the Kings), long live the King!” a large contingent of Lower Sixth and even younger actors also showcased their plentiful potential and talent, leaving the audience in no doubt over the future of Harrovian drama. Freddie Heffer (Elmfield) marvellously commanded the stage, acting as a voice of compassion and reason. He embodied the attitude of all the ignored voiceless soldiers unable to express their suffering and discontent throughout the war - juxtaposed with Shailer’s heartless depiction of Haig’s unwavering certainty in his plan of attack for his pyrrhic victory.
In addition, Monty Powell’s (The Grove) melodic moving solo in the background to their arguing and announcement the growing death toll, heightened the sense of poignancy. Powell’s roles as humorous personification of Germany, both as an emotional army officer and an excessively enthusiastic patriotic businessman, were particularly impressive – though his accent was at times a little suspect. Adam Ait El Caid (Druries) and his lower-School “French” regiment of Theo Nash, Ed Cartwright, George Gallagher (all The Grove) and Jake Henson (The Park) – in a performance that belied their limited experience – emphasised and embodied the feelings of common soldiers’ disenchantment with their commanding officers in the war. In the first Act, Ait El Caid and his excited troops were presented larking around, eager for the adventure of war. This dramatically contrasts their riotous and sullen behaviour later in the play as the boys comically act out their perceived fates as lambs to a slaughter, mocking their senior officer and his feigned excitement with loud “baas”. However, his brutal response, “Don’t think, just obey”, underscored the scene that acted as portrait of the situation of soldiers across the Western Front, discontented with fighting but simultaneously forced to continue.
The boisterous regiment of soldiers including Rafe Wendelson-Dickson (Druries) Latham, Jones and Ross also provided some of the play’s most profound moments. Their depiction of the Christmas day truce echoed that of French film Joyuex Noel with their moving renditions of the contrasting ‘Silent Night’ and ‘It was Christmas in the Cookhouse’, rightly romanticizing an angelic act of humanity amidst the horrors of the warfare along Western Front.
A particular mention and thanks must be given to the band, whose beautifully played mellifluous music was instrumental in helping create and convey the poignant tone and atmosphere of the play. The girls from Bishopshalt School were extremely professional and their graceful singing and acting showed just why their school is renowned for its music and drama. A particularly exquisite solo from Julia Meanda brought the play to a standstill, with her mournful lamenting tone perfectly capturing the emotion of the play and receiving rapturous applause from the audience.
Although most of us at Harrow have read the poetry by Sassoon and Owen, APC’s Oh! What a Lovely War truly brought home the brutality of the Great War and the horrific ordeals of those who fought. Thus, in all respects, the production was roaring success with the over flowing Ryan each night a testament to the hundreds of hours of rehearsal put in by the actors, the band and APC himself. Oh! What a Lovely War was true reflection of what drama at Harrow can and should be: powerful and dynamic but also richly entertaining – hence a massive congratulations should be offered to the Ryan Theatre team, the acting company itself, the accompanying band and APC for all their efforts in creating such a moving performance that will not easily be forgotten.” (adapted)