• Title: Oh What a Lovely War
  • Written by: Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton
  • Director: Peter Hinton
  • Actors: Ryan Cunningham, Jeff Irving, Allan Louis, Jenny L. Wright
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 13, 2018

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Oh, what a muddle.

Director Peter Hinton’s new production of Oh What a Lovely War at the Shaw Festival tries to be both a revival of the 1963 British play with music of that name about the First World War – and a brand-new documentary play about Canadian participation in it.

As with the fighting on the Western Front, however, neither side advances its cause successfully for very long.

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The ensemble of Oh What a Lovely War.

David Cooper

A legendary collective creation headed by director Joan Littlewood with her Theatre Workshop, Oh What a Lovely War originally juxtaposed songs from the war – from recruitment tunes and home-front morale boosters, to darker soldier songs that reflected the reality of the trenches – with a stylized series of scenes performed by actors in Pierrot clown costumes.

It was history channelled through a seaside music hall – and also a popular hit that transferred to Paris and Broadway.

Co-created with BBC broadcaster Charles Chilton, Littlewood’s show advanced a narrative about the First World War that is now the dominant one: that the European powers stumbled into the war, and it was years of mad and futile slaughter.

It features no consistent characters beyond a master of ceremonies (played here by Allan Louis) who guides the audience through the evening – and, later, Field Marshal Douglas Haig (Jeff Irving), British commander on the Western Front. The success of the show in the 1960s played a crucial role in sealing Haig’s historical reputation as a “butcher” who fought a war of attrition in offensives such as the Somme and Passchendaele.

Some of the old Oh What a Lovely War scenes, such as those involving Haig, kept in Hinton’s production retain their power. One that dramatizes an unofficial truce on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914 is simple and moving.

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Some of the old Oh What a Lovely War scenes, such as those involving Haig, kept in Hinton’s production retain their power.

David Cooper

Other agitprop bits, however, seem dated or are presented in a confusing fashion. The play’s initial summary of the causes and outbreak of the war, in particular, is incoherent.

If it’s hard to follow the show (or for the actors to find a satisfying groove), this is in part because Hinton has added and layered in all sorts of new material that clashes.

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Instead of having just the one MC, for instance, this production also features an actor in a Pierrot costume (James Daly) who prances around on stage, and another playing the working-class, foul-mouthed Littlewood herself (an amusing Jenny L. Wright).

A whole battery of other actors speak to us directly in the style of documentary theatre – or as themselves in new Shaw Festival “two-way theatre” bits that, in an already metatheatrical show such as this, only give you a headache.

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Ryan Cunningham and the ensemble of Oh What a Lovely War.

David Cooper

Most of the newly written or adapted scenes tell us about Canadians – from, hyperlocally, soldiers training in Niagara-on-the-Lake and women working in factories in nearby St. Catharines; to black Canadians in Nova Scotia trying to enlist, but initially prevented from doing so; to Indigenous fighters such as the great sniper Francis Pegahmagabow (the talented Ryan Cunningham), who should really have his own show.

These parts are often compelling – but have an earnest tone that feels out of place and, in the end, makes you feel like you’re getting two incomplete shows in the place of one.

Shaw Festival head honcho Tim Carroll has programmed three productions this season to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War – a couple of which are adaptations/takes on old British plays from Canadian angles. I’ve yet to see Carroll’s own Henry V metatheatrically performed by “a troop of Canadian soldiers hunkered down in a dugout during WWI” (it opens next week) – but this curation seems to me to reflect a superficial understanding of this country’s theatre scene.

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James Daly in Oh What a Lovely War.

David Cooper

Because of the controversial idea that a Canadian identity was forged, that a nation was born, at Vimy Ridge, the First World War has inspired no end of plays (as well as literature and movies), ones that are rarely off our stages.

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Billy Bishop Goes to War, Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and Vimy by Vern Thiessen are some of the most produced across the country – while David French’s Salt-Water Moon, deeply informed by Newfoundland’s devastating losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, may be the most produced (and, indeed, features one of the songs here: The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin).

If anything, Canadian theatregoers would benefit by seeing more foreign plays about the First World War to gain a wider perspective and complement our steady diet of these revivals, and fresh Canadian plays on the subject (such as Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver’s Redpatch). Cramming Canada into Oh What a Lovely War is pointless.

Oh What a Lovely War runs until Oct. 13 (shawfest.com).