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19 March 1963: Oh! What A Lovely War premieres

Published 23 April 2008

In a century of London theatre many new plays have had a huge impact on the theatrical scene and the wider community, but there have been few more acclaimed, harder-hitting satires than Oh! What A Lovely War, which premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on 19 March 1963.

Created by Charles Chilton, Joan Littlewood and the ensemble Theatre Workshop cast, and directed by Littlewood, Oh! What A Lovely War blended vaudevillian sketches highlighting the farce of war with images of World War I and nauseating statistics. The actors, performing a variety of roles throughout the course of the show, wore commedia dell’arte style black and white costumes, and some of the most popular songs of the Great War, such as It’s A Long Way To Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles were used to underline the vulgarity of war. The sketches in the devised piece included French soldiers bleating like lambs to the slaughter as they marched into No Man’s Land.

A successful run at Stratford East, where The Guardian’s Philip Hope-Wallace described the piece as “The most brilliantly imagined political comment of our theatre in all the years since the second war”, saw the show transfer to the Wyndham’s theatre in the West End.

The show cemented its reputation by winning the Grand Prix of the Theatre des Nations festival in Paris that year.

Six years later Richard Attenborough transformed the stage production into a film that starred many of the West End’s major players, including: Corin, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Susannah York and John Mills.

War being a hot topic in the modern world, the piece has twice been revived in London over the last decade. The National Theatre staged a production directed by Fiona Laird and starring Dean Lennox Kelly, Joanna Riding and Simon Day in 1998, and the Open Air Theatre revived the show four years later as part of its 70th anniversary season in 2002.

MA

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