As events and commemorations continue to mark the centenary of the First World War, it’s often hard to keep track of them all. Some are tasteful, others perhaps less so but a lot of what passes as memorial is down to personal taste. I think that a more pertinent reminder of the horror of war would be images of the dead of that conflict, beamed onto public buildings such as the Houses of Parliament.
Or perhaps that awful blue cockerel currently residing on the fourth plinth on Trafalgar Square, could be replaced with a statue of a paraplegic squaddie – or mourning mother, to illustrate a more fitting reminder of war’s effects. Or a wider exhibit of those haunting Henry Tonks’ works, depicting the disfigurement of WW1 veterans, cheek and jaw bones torn apart, leaving only caverns of isolation.
But any such efforts would undoubtedly become blasé. After an initial shock, those images would be normalised. Just as photos of war from Syria, Iraq and Ukraine now share space on social media with Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian, so those scenes of horror become completely standard. And after all, it’s nothing the public haven’t seen in films or computer games.
However, a break from timelines and Facebook nonsense is needed so that as many people may see a musical that premiered in the 1960s and provides an insight into how great British satire once was. “Oh What A Lovely War!” is currently touring theatres across the country and in a production of boundless energy and dynamism, the Joan Littlewood musical is a welcome excursion from not only our phones, but also the sentimental and hackneyed version that so much war drama often throws up.
It mixes revelry with the shocking – just as a saucy dance hall act entices men to join up, with the underlying promise of a good fuck as recompense, so statistics pound away at our minds. “800,000 Germans starve to death as a result of British blockade”, “60,000 British dead in three hours at the Somme”.
As the audience applauds a song, another grip statistic captures our eyeballs. This is in turn a wise tool but also discomforting, placing the audience into conflicting emotions and genuinely challenging all notions that may provide comfort.
Those profiteers of war are derided as callous goons; bemoaning any likelihood of a ceasefire while making patriotic parrot cries. Whilst grouse shooting they fire into the skies at defenceless birds as the armaments they make and sell maim, kill and blind the poor lads at the Front.
Special ire is reserved for the loathsome Field Marshall Haig, who, delusional enough to believe he was being guided by divine assistance, sends division after division into the paths of German machine gunners. The world he inhabited with his fellow high-ranking officers, full of pomposity and lacking all charm and wisdom, is brilliantly shown as a self-serving clique, with only personal gain being their overriding interest.
The casts’ performances are dextrous, intelligent and authentic while the production moves seamlessly from 101 different settings with absolutely no harm done to its seamless trajectory.
Pulling no punches and never attempting to dilute its overall message of the grotesqueness of war, it’s a fitting tribute to those who never came home from the war that was meant to end all wars.
Thomas Paul served in N Ireland with The Anglian Regiment he is now a member of Veterans For Peace UK