It’s commonly said that “comedy is tragedy plus time,” and few shows can capture that saying in as much of a literal sense as Oh, What a Lovely War! does. Originally created in 1963—well after the dust had settled on the horrors of both world wars—the production was intended to be an ironic critique of war itself and what it stands for, using the First World War as a backdrop. One hundred years later, Players’ Theatre brings the musical to its stage, and under the direction of Connor Spencer, deftly captures the comedic aspects without letting the seriousness get lost in the laughs.
The show is not a typical musical—one with plots and characters, romances and twists—instead, it’s styled after a Pierrot Show, far more of a circus or variety show than a musical. These Pierrot Shows were popular in the seaside towns of pre-war England.
Mimicking these shows, the Players Theatre designed the set with hanging candles in jars and bunting flags, making you feel like you’ve walked into a vintage circus.
The music is composed entirely of popular, sing-along songs of the time period, most of which were sung by the men in the trenches. A few, like “Gassed Last Night,” are clever parodies of such songs.
The show begins with the troupe playing war games, and quickly launches into an absurd satire of the bumbling generals, laughably naive citizens, and stiff-lipped aristocrats preparing for war. One of the memorable early scenes is a hilarious beauty-pageant of pompous European countries boasting their power and glory, with cultural stereotypes abound.
With the spirited songs, constant movement, and slapstick portrayals of the events of the early war, the cast brings a rousing exuberance to the first act. From propaganda anthems like “I’ll Make a Man of You” to the opening ensemble number “Row, Row, Row,” the cast proves its vocal strength.
Anni Choudhury stands out from the ensemble with his prominent comedic talent. In one of the most hilarious scenes, Choudhury plays a loud, buffoonish English sergeant directing his troops on how to properly fire sticks—or in one case, a parasol. The scene had the air of a Monty Python sketch, with Choudhury giving a performance reminiscent of John Cleese.
The second act takes a more somber turn, focusing on the trials and tribulations of the British army. While men are being killed by the thousands, the out-of-touch aristocratic generals are far more concerned with keeping up appearances and following who is being promoted than worrying about the travesties of war. Borrowing money from a subordinate comes as more of a shock to one general than the fact that his troops are being annihilated.
With Spencer’s direction, the juxtaposition of the first and second act isn’t jarring. The transition from uproarious political satire to a solemn revelation of the ‘victory’ of the great war is slow, allowing the audience to gradually sense the shift in tone. Yet even in its exploration of the grim realities of war, the second act combines the tragic truth of the war with dark humour. Daniel Carter in particular masters the delivery of this dark comedy as the English general who is committed to fighting no matter the costs because the alternative—surrendering to some foreign German and saving thousands of lives—is just unthinkable.
Vocal talent was not lacking in this production, particularly from the female cast members. Hannah McKillop’s soprano on “Keep the Home Fires Burning” captured the tearful desperation and exhaustion felt by everyone involved in the war effort, while Sophia Metcalf and Eleonore Lamothe shine in “I’ll Make a Man of You” and “Hold Your Hand out Naughty Boy.”
With its constant shuffling of sets, characters, costumes, and songs, the show is a unique theatrical experience; its talented cast and director manage to bring both the tragedy and comedy of the First World War alive in a performance bursting with delight and creativity.
Oh, What a Lovely War! runs from Oct. 22 to Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at Players’ Theatre (3480 McTavish). Student tickets are $6.