AS we approach the centenary of the end of The Great War and listen to the umpteenth justification for MORE guns being the answer to school shootings in the US, awareness of the futility of war and the (usually) male obsession with armaments is as relevant as it ever was.
Joan Littlewood’s brilliant and chilling musical Oh! What a Lovely War loses none of its impact, and the Cary Amateur Theatrical Society production brings the power home by using photographs of the soldiers from Castle Cary and its surrounding villages as a backdrop for the finale of the show.
The pierrot troupe that enacts the War Games is, in John Flanagan’s production, transformed to The Merry Roosters, a touring band of players come to Somerset to enact glimpses of the war, from the opening salvo shooting Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo to the last shot on 11th November 1918.
In between those events, millions died, millions were wounded and millions were reported missing, their fates never certain for their grieving families.
Bungled plans and commands were lost in translation, egocentric commanders ignored advice, the British class system ruled the battlefield and the lives of the rank and file soldiers were cheap.
I must have seen more than 20 productions of Littlewood’s classic, and it never fails to make me cry.
The CATS production, with Lynne Merrifield in charge of a tight band making the most of the military rhythms, and Paul Denegri performing the audience-silencing Last Post, has a cast which includes a babe in arms and a dog among its veterans and schoolchildren.
Oh! What a Lovely War is essentially an ensemble piece, cast members stepping in and out of the troupe for their solo spots. The ticker tape inexorably adds up the numbers of dead, and the minimal advances made by successive “big pushes”.
Outstanding in this excellent cast are Theo Simon’s recklessly determined Haig, leading from the back as men died in their thousands, Duncan Wright’s aristocratic officer, Quintin Mitchell’s all purpose MC and Luke Whitchurch’s gospel-tinged hymn.
With images of Cary’s dead soldiers, the audience still whooped and cheered at the end of the show. Perhaps that is how Joan Littlewood wanted it.