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February 12, 2014 6:03 pm
In this, the centenary year of the outbreak of the first world war, Joan Littlewood’s groundbreaking musical satire has already been involved in a bit of a skirmish involving the British secretary of state for education (his interest is drolly acknowledged here in a short prelude to the show proper). It’s good, then, to see the piece itself lovingly revived in its original East End London home. For seen now, it marks history in more ways than one.
A hundred years since the war broke out and 50 since the show was first staged, it is in a sense a period piece itself: a defiant, visionary deployment of popular entertainment style to tackle history from the point of view of the man-on-the-street (or, in this case, the man-in-the-trench). Rather than a naturalistic depiction of the war, Littlewood and her company devised an end-of-the-pier show: a jaunty mix of song, dance and comic sketches. The format allowed them to satirise incompetent authority but also cannily sidestepped sentimentality, relying for effect on the shocking juxtaposition of this breezy style with the terrible statistics of loss in battle, delivered on an electronic display panel overhead.
The lack of deference we may now be more used to, but, seen today in Terry Johnson’s revival, what still hits home is the piece’s profoundly affecting use of the men’s songs. Jaunty, rude, bitter, yearning, they offer a direct link with the common soldiers who made up those numbers of dead detailed in the show. It’s in the use of them that the piece still feels powerful – perhaps the more so now that all the voices that originally sang them are silent. (The caustic portrayals of the top brass, by contrast, come across as a bit heavy-handed.)
Johnson’s revival, charged with contemporary despair at continuing conflict in the world, is at its best when at its simplest. Some of the satire is so hectically delivered, it loses impact and the cast, though nimble and versatile, strain to handle it.
During the songs, though, the show comes into its own. Caroline Quentin holds the stage magnificently with her ghastly recruiting number “I’ll Make a Man of You” and her tongue-twister “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts”. And the production is never better than when depicting the famous Christmas Eve truce. A German voice sings “Silent Night”; the British soldiers offer a risqué musical response: it’s plain, drily funny and very moving.
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