Gallery/Ipswich: Songs, battles and few jokes as the Gallery Players tackle Oh What a Lovely War at Sir John Mills Theatre

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. Photos: Lucy Taylor

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. Photos: Lucy Taylor - Credit: Lucy Taylor

In the words of Oh What a Lovely War’s Master of Ceremonies: “We’ve got songs for you, some battles and a few jokes.”

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War.

The Gallery Players production of Oh What A Lovely War. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

Until April 4, the Gallery Players become seaside entertainment troupe The Merry Roosters who tell the the story of the First World War based on the songs and words of those who fought in it 100 years ago.

The 12-strong cast, and one pianist, all in Pierrot costume, will play more parts from both sides of the conflict than director James Hayward can count - from the Tommies in the trenches to the generals who marched them to the most brutal of deaths.

It’s not the most conventional of musicals.

“You don’t follow the journey of a character or characters through the war, a lot of it is sketches interwoven with the popular songs of the time like Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kitbag; some of which are done straight but the Tommies often created their own versions adding quite rude variants,” says James, who fell in love with the Joan Littlewood show after appearing in a production of it at school.

“It’s extraordinary the way in which the songs reflect the fears of the soldiers about death and destruction. A lot are about bombs, mud, death and the destruction that was all around them... I suppose it was black humour, a diversion from the horror around them.”

A snapshot of how different attitudes towards conflict were back then, it also highlights how the First World War was the father of modern warfare. In the space of four years, soldiers went from galloping around on horses to planes and zepplins dropping bombs and tanks ploughing through fields.

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The lack of a straight narrative and the scope of the piece has proved a challenge.

“There isn’t time to massively change costumes. Everybody basically wears traditional pierrot costume (black and whites with bobbles, pointy clown hats) they just swap them for a hat here, a coat there, a rifle, a backpack, a general’s cap, a nurse’s headdress... But it’s a nightmare for the people doing the props and the costumes,” he laughs.

The design is simple, yet clever, with the company giving the audience the impression of being at an end of the pier theatre show with the odd bit of barbed wire.

The real genius is the use of sound to make you feel you’re in the trenches with the cast, who have been looking at their own family histories to see what role their ancestors played in the war.

“The sounds are very important, the sounds of shells exploding, whiz-bangs... we use slides at various points to augment what’s going on on stage, showing original photos from the First World War, so occasionally you get to see planes and some of the armoury of the machinery of war; but it mostly concentrates on the human element.”

It’s fitting the show runs at Ipswich’s Sir John Mills Theatre, given he played Field Marshal Douglas Haig in the film version. Foremost is the show serves as a tribute to the men and women who served their country abroad and at home and were caught up in the “war to end all wars”.

“It’s been a personal ambition of mine to put this on, but it seemed the obvious time to do it would be at the anniversary of the outbreak of the war,” says James, who hopes people will learn something.

“Clearly entertaining people is the main thing... when the show was first created there was an aim to inform and instruct people. There’s an element of anti-war propaganda certainly, not surprising since it dates from the early 1960s and was the time of the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

“I hope people will take something away... It’s going to be up to the audience to make up their own minds what they think about war and whether it can ever be justified. Just looking at the statistics that come up during the show of the millions who lost their lives it does call the whole thing into question.”