Oh! What A Lovely War

Nov 10 2018 | By More

★★★★☆     Powerful

Studio at Festival Theatre: Thurs 8 – Sun 11 Nov 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

Brutal yet hilarious, Captivate Theatre’s production of Oh! What A Lovely War at the Festival Theatre Studio feels relevant beyond its obvious significance to Sunday’s centenary of the WW1 Armistice.

Sally Lyall has a solid touch in her direction, playing to Captivate’s greatest strength in the musical’s sung element while giving a lighter but always heart-felt approach to its staging to create a production which has great power, if not the subtlety that it might.

Rifle Practice. Pic: Tommie Travers

Created by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1963, the musical takes the music-hall, end-of-the-pier pierrot show, and applies it to the more inconvenient truths of the First World War, as researched and re-imagined by the TW actors.

Popular songs of the time, some heard in the music-hall and some rather more bawdy ones sung in the trenches, provide an often ironic commentary, with Tommie Travers giving it laldy from behind the piano.

Scott Coltman’s top-hatted MC conducts the production through the headline events before and during the war, presented in a series of sketches that jump from drill practice (with sticks) to political chin-wags and military balls.

Slides projected behind the performers constantly remind of historical events and, as the war in the trenches commences, the mortality statistics from that particular month’s offensive with the number of yards gained for that sacrifice.


It is fascinating stuff which goes back to the origins of the war. The ensemble play war games wearing pierrot hats to give them a sense of the clown and don national hats to laugh at the stereotypes of the German, French and British leaderships and mock the way the different leaders all thought it would pan out.

A scene from Oh What A Lovely War. Pic Tommie Travers

A scene from Oh What A Lovely War. Pic: Tommie Travers

There’s plenty of social history too – Rosie Graham puts in a brilliant turn with I’ll Make A Man Out of You. She has every salacious angle covered as she lists the various armed forces she walks out with during the week – before promising to make a man out of anyone who will only take the shilling.

The rest of the company, who have decamped to the stalls for the duration of the song whoot and holler, before trouping back to take the shilling – and what ever is on offer besides, you imagine. In fact, while there are a few individual performances which stand out because of their position in the structure of the piece, the whole company put in enormous shifts.

One of those stand out moments comes from Georgia-Lee Roberts who uses the abrasive side of her voice to excellent effect in a properly down-at-heal music hall delivery of Hitchy-coo.

The politics comes largely from drawing in items about profiteering during war time. A note of the extraordinary number of Americans who became millionaires as a result of the war is projected behind a sketch that foreshadows John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil, with capitalist arms merchants shooting grouse and discussing business.

condemned by his own quotes

If the first half sets it up, the second half digs in. Iain McFadden turns out as General Haig. It’s a vicious portrayal of him with McFadden suitably bald and uncoloured in his approach, letting Haig be condemned by his own quotes about acceptable losses and war by attrition.

It’s all very hard hitting, and superbly compered by Coltman, whose musicality and general performance, not to mention some completely on-the-nail ad-libs mark him down as a real force to watch out for.

Sally Lyall’s directorial decision to have the cast in fatigues as their basic costume rather than pierrot outfits – or a more contemporary equivalent – does colour the tone of the play, somewhat. There’s less of a contrast between the two acts than there might be. And, powerful as the mounting deaths and the final tableaux are, their impact is not the mind-blowing one it could be.

That said, Gerron Stewart’s lighting design, which used to great effect throughout, ensures that no one is going to leave this brilliant show without a lump in their throat. While the depiction of donkeys leading lions is as pertinent today as it ever was,

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes (including one interval)
The Studio at Festival Theatre 22 Potterrow, EH8 9BL. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000
Thursday 8 – Sunday 11 November 2018
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat: 2.30pm.

Tickets:  Click here to book.

The original text of Oh! What A Lovely War and the 1969 film adaptation are available to buy from Amazon. Click for details:


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