The Freshers' Play: Oh, What a Lovely War!

Wed 16th – Sat 19th November 2011


Chris BB

at 01:13 on 17th Nov 2011



The eagerly anticipated Freshers Play for 2011, “Oh, What a Lovely War!” is a musical satire of the First World War that is bound to raise at least a chuckle, even from Mr Grumpy. This annual event provides a unique opportunity for those of us new to the bubble; the roles of directing, producing, acting, teching, promoting, you name it, are all handed to first years. Indeed many in the audience were first years, keen to spy newly made friends in the cast. But this ambitious task of putting on a production in a few short weeks with a group of strangers has been performed admirably by the director Matt Dann and his team of fellow freshers so that, if tonight's performance is anything to go by, we should all be looking forward to a high calibre of theatre in Durham over the next few years.

The audience enters the Assembly Rooms Theatre to be greeted by a minimalist set, and the cast wearing party hats, mingling and chatting amongst themselves in a simple but effective pre-show. The MC for the evening, performed by Ed Cherrie, presents himself as a very friendly chap, and he remains much less of a characterised figure and more of the audience's guide through the play, talking to the audience and in some cases, forewarning us of what to expect. The party hats and relaxed atmosphere are quickly abolished and juxtaposed with the deep realities of war. But then, a mere second later, the production evokes laughter, reintroducing tongue-in-cheek humour before dragging us back into reality again, forcing us to become emotionally attached to the characters. In this way we are forced to question the play's material in an almost Brechtian manner.

However the opening of the production is, to put it bluntly, uninspiring compared to its conclusion. Whilst songs remained full of life and conviction, stage pictures were static and lacking in energy, vocal projection was weaker and, for some, vocal delivery was dubious and inauthentic. Though the cast have clearly bonded as a group, their acting abilities are not so consistent. Some actors lacked the conviction and spontaneity of their peers. It was as though the recurring transition between melodrama and realism, and back again, proved too difficult for some. This resulted in somewhat artificial and exaggerated speeches, in what were clearly meant to be authentically touching scenes. Moreover some, though very isolated, instances were reminiscent of a school play with nerves getting the better of some. A slight fumble here, and a shuffling to get back into position there. Actors be warned, we notice every time when you fidget or play with your hair, or indeed, when exiting a scene, you drop your character prematurely. This is not to say however that there were not some extremely talented actors treading the boards, with the scenes depicting Christmas Day and the Irish platoon being amongst the most poignant. Indeed, many of the concerns I had at the beginning of the production begin to dissolve away by the end of the first half. Whether due to first night nerves or not, the end of the first and whole of the second half proved much stronger, emotionally engaging and believable, with the final scene being, arguably, the most powerful. This is true also of the technical side of the production. Though by no means weak at the outset, the work of the technical team, led by Daniel Gosselin, becomes more and more impressive as the production unfolds with some truly magnificent backlighting towards the end of the production casting the entire cast into silhouette.

Dann's directorial concept is majorly based on simplicity, illustrated by the largely monochrome colour scheme. All the cast wore black, a foreboding inference to funerals and death. The addition of a single costume item, typically a hat or a jacket, to define individual characters was remarkably effective. Likewise the black and white checkerboard that covered the stage, left the audience thinking - was the war just a game like the satire suggested, or something deeper, a matter of life and death? Indeed the larger than life dice onstage made us consider the cruel role of luck in determining those who died and those who survived the war. Devices like these combined with the evident focus placed on utilising architecture, breaking the fourth wall and harmonising the ensemble numbers obviously paid off. However, some of the longer scenes dragged and, especially due to the use of a large cast, greater work on movement around the stage and spatial relationships would not have gone amiss. Likewise, whilst I respect the decision to remain true to the original production, through incorporating multimedia, I often felt I was missing crucial information when the projector screen was obscured from view by the blocking of some scenes. Most unfortunately however were the recurring instances when the cast were able to draw the audience into the palm of their hand, to be clawing onto their every word, only for all dramatic tension to be lost by prolonged moments of awkward silence and stillness. Nonetheless, and particularly in the second act, Dann's comical caricatures were ingeniously transformed into real, living characters with very personal stories. Sometimes both co-existed in a single stage picture. The fact that not every cast member could pull off a foreign accent was of no consequence as this inconsistency, far from drawing attention to poor characterisation, was able to contribute to the tongue-in-cheek humour.

Overall Dann's creation is funny, poignant and a remarkable feat for Durham's freshers. Get yourself a ticket and go and see it!


Giles Thomas Richard Ward

at 12:39 on 19th Nov 2011



On Friday evening Durham University Freshers took on Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh What A lovely War.’ It was a triumphant performance of music, humour and tragedy. With excellent acting, dancing, singing, lighting, props and production, it was an extravaganza of emotions filled with more historical facts than the British Museum.

The scene was set. The room was dark, smoky and lit up with red and white lights. The ominously eerie atmosphere created was only lightened by the cast’s frolicking around on stage. The humour and joy of the cast was to be replaced by the permanent and dominating stage design.

The first half began with dodgy accents, dodgy parties and all of the jingoism of the beginnings of the First World War. The fluencies of languages, resembling an episode of ‘‘Allo ‘Allo!’, ranged from the US to Russia and many nations in-between. The energy and excitement was infectious and spread to the audience in the shape of laughter, applause and good vibes. A particularly brilliant scene was with a British Army man advising his troops on bayonets and rifles.

The production team was able to perfectly synchronise historical projections on the wall. The synchronising was met well with the actors and actresses, and a lot of the satire fed off this. This was particularly brilliant orchestration.

In the second half the jingoism stopped, and the projections of the deaths during the Battle of the Somme, meant the stage had caught up with the cast and we were now into the seriousness of war. As more and more deaths were projected, the transition from humour to tragedy was deflating. The cast was able to do the transition of comedy to drama very quickly and accurately.

All in all, Oh What a Lovely War was well acted, choreographed and produced. An achievement for a Freshers' play and certainly roots for a blossoming of three years of entertaining plays.


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