Grim realities of the First World War brought to life on stage by youth theatre groups
Two youth groups at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans have joined forces to perform a wonderfully engaging satire on the First World War.
The St Albans Youth Music Theatre and the Company of Teens are putting on Oh! What A Lovely War on the main stage from next Thursday.
In the same year as the Profumo scandal, the Beatles’ first LP and the creation of The National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier, Joan Littlewood’s pioneering 1963 musical about World War One changed attitudes about the conflict.
Oh! What A Lovely War was original because it viewed the war from the perspective of the common soldier, and counterpointed popular songs such as It’s a Long way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles, with grim statistics from newsreels of the time projected onto the stage.
The public had never before seen popular entertainment express the disenchantment felt at the time by the average man in the trenches.
The piece emerged from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.
Although a script was written it was soon ditched, and after much research, the cast created the show from scratch, keeping only the title and traditional music hall songs, often with a change in lyrics. It was a truly collaborative production.
“In the original performance, the actors were dressed in Pierrot costumes,” explained director Beccy Baird.
“This drew attention to the contrast between the horrors of war and frivolous entertainment.
“We have drawn the inspiration for our production from turn of the century music hall and circus, and are using a two-storey set for our 13 actors, dressed with all the props and costumes they need.
“The company play a huge range of roles, from Belgian generals to Serbian spies, chorus girls to suffragettes, and the audience see the action played out both behind the scenes and front of house in a theatre, overseen by a rather sinister impresario.”
During rehearsals recently, the teens recorded their thoughts on Oh! What A Lovely War, and how much they have learned in the process.
“When we are taught about the war,” pointed out Imogen Thompson, “it is mostly dates, facts and figures... the events.
“This is about how the war affected lives, the emotional fallout.”
James Tudor agreed. “It highlights the gap between the propaganda put out, showing the nobility of war, the heroism of fighting for your country, and the realities of life in the trenches.”
Emma Rouse asks the profound question: “If those same events happened today, would we do things differently, or would there be a similar outcome?”
Whatever the answer, in the words of Rachel Morgan, “10 million dead, 21 million injured, 2 million missing... they all deserve to be remembered.”
Performances take place in the main theatre from Thursday, July 12 to Saturday, July 14 at 8pm.
There’s also a matinee performance on Saturday, July 14 at 2.30pm.
• To book tickets go to www.abbeytheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 01727 857861.