Exactly 100 years ago this week, Britain declared war on Germany and as Europe both commemorates and reviews the slaughter that followed, the Minack has taken the cue to stage a musical based on the black humour of the men in the trenches, and the political and military tactics that wiped-out a generation.
The idea for the musical, Oh What a Lovely War, came from a BBC Home Service documentary written by Charles Chilton in memory of his father, who was killed at Arras.
Gerry Raffles heard it, and took it to his partner, Joan Littlewood, who turned it down because she hated war, and could not bear the idea of spotlighting khaki-clad soldiers on the stage of her Theatre Workshop – but she was persuaded and produced the award-winning musical of 1963 and later a film, set on Brighton Pier.
The compromise was to stage the show as a seaside musical, with the cast dressed as Pierrots, allowing only helmets and military belts, hats and peaked caps to identify the political leaders and officers that ‘masterminded’ the conflict . . . with the accent on the futility of war.
The backdrop to the beach huts and sandcastles, and the famous songs of that era, was a screen that reminded the audience of the horrifying statistics of World War One – for instance, the loss of 1.3 million lives on the Somme, with no ground won or lost by either side.
At the time it was a concept that upset a number of people who felt it was disrespectful to the memory of the fallen. The Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre director Mike Higginson writes in the programme: “It does lay bare statistics of death and injury and says much about the conditions in which the soldiers were asked to live and die.
“It shows the blindness of leadership to the futility of their tactics as well as the mercenary attitudes of those who made weapons of war, but the final judgement is left to you, the audience.”
During a week of reminiscences that have given us a greater insight into the personal experiences of some of those soldiers and their families, this production could not be better timed.
The action is upbeat, the songs sung with grit and gusto, it’s good to look at, it’s entertaining and jolly – and it is desperately sad.
The band led by musical director Dale Wills marches a big cast through the many songs of the day – Oh, I do Like to be Beside the Seaside, Goodbyeeee, It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary and the signature tune Oh! It’s a Lovely War.
The white-clad Pierrots, with big black bobbles, are costumed by Liz Naisbitt, Julia Kemp, Andrea Kerry and Wendy Smith, with snappy choreography by Alice Higginson and stage managed by Lynda Newton, with projection by Peter Townsend, sound by James McLeod and lighting by Colin Goldberg and Jon Hudson.
Arriving at the Minack car park on the opening night, we were directed by senior British officers – it set the tone very well.
The soloists include Paul Friett, Peter, Lilia and Joel Griffin, Annabel Goldberg, Sophie Hudson, Isabella and Zachary Hughes, and Molly and Samuel Devlin. It is poignant that the young men cast as Tommies, are the same age as those that went to the Front Line exactly 100 years ago.
The conflict claimed the lives of more than 17 million in Europe and this show expertly brings home the sense of futility of the ‘war to end all wars’.