Oh What A Lovely War – oh what a challenging show! I would like to congratulate Simon Cheetham for his courage in agreeing to take on this project, his vision in believing that Parish Players could make a success of it and his directorial skills in making his vision come true.
Parish Players faced up to the challenges of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop landmark and tackled them head on – and they pulled it off! The First World War is an enormously emotive subject and we were certainly provided with a two-hour emotional roller-coaster, in fact, almost as much a challenge to watch as to perform.
This was a great piece of ensemble work by the whole company – both those on stage and backstage. Technically, this was an extremely ambitious piece for Parish Players to tackle and the 25 (yes, 25!) people listed in the programme as backstage crew richly deserve congratulations for what they achieved.
Continuing with the backstage plaudits, the props and costumes teams should take a bow. From rifles to beer steins, from the innumerable soldiers’ caps to the officers’ swagger sticks, it all added to the authenticity of the piece. And to something that doesn’t often get a mention – I was particularly impressed by the actresses’ hairstyles – maybe a minor point, but I thought they looked lovely.
So to the acting: the on-stage achievements were phenomenal. It is far from easy to play so many characters, with so many accents and so many hats but the action was fluid and lucid. Some of the detailed action was just wonderful – and a lot of it was mime! I particularly liked the French cavalry charge (which was pure pantomime), French and Wilson in the back of their car, bouncing along in unison, and the girls at the shoot collecting the shotguns for the ghillie then to polish (whilst he polished off the whiskey at the same time!).
It was not just the actions, but the reactions on stage which impressed – it was good to see animated expressions and the only time these dropped was when the players were perhaps a little unsure of the script. If it’s done with conviction, the audience will believe it’s right – even if it’s not!
Tragedy and Comedy are two sides of the same coin, so as well as the comedy, there were some extremely poignant moments in the show which were almost heart-breaking to watch. I was particularly impressed by the slow entrance of the wounded soldiers – the blinded soldiers looked especially moving – and by the off-stage singing of “Hush, Here Comes A Whizz Bang” – which benefited from the fact that the stage lighting was lowered at this point and the evocative slides could be seen quite clearly
It has not been my intention to mention each individual as this was such an ensemble piece, however, I feel it would be remiss of me not to comment on a couple of outstanding moments. The Rifle Drill scene was excellent, not only for the John Bohan’s tour de force as the Sergeant Major but also for David Golder’s brilliant reactions and expressions whilst watching the soldiers with the real rifles. I was also particularly impressed by Pete Smith as Haig – he was utterly convincing as the soldier who was utterly convinced that the policy of mass slaughter was the divine way to win a war. These three actors are long-standing Parish Players and their skills on stage were an object lesson for all.
And so to the singing and dancing – I loved it! I thought the piano/flute/sax/drums combo provided the perfect backing to the period songs – congratulations to the band. I do not know if it was an intentional theme but I liked the in lines/swaying choreography which ran through all the big chorus songs. Some of the songs were outstanding – apart from those I mentioned earlier, I especially enjoyed the singing in the Church Service scene and Roy Perryment’s unaccompanied (apart from the drums) “Gassed Last Night”, both of which were very moving.
As I’ve already said, this was a true ensemble piece. Whether you were involved in designing the programme, running the bar, connecting the wiring for the technical wizardry or walking on stage and singing a song which moved the audience to tears, none of you could have provided such a wonderful and thought-provoking evening without the others. Parish Players can be justifiably proud of this achievement.