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BWW Review: OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! at Hart House Theatre


BWW Review: OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! at Hart House Theatre

When the musical OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! premiered in London, in the 1960s, World War One was relatively fresh in the minds of the audience, most having either lived through it or being the child of someone who had. Today, the show, which strings together British songs from the Great War through a series of comical and melodramatic vignettes, feels neither contemporary nor historical. In its new treatment at Hart House Theatre, Autumn Smith has tried to breathe twenty-first century life into the show through the contemporary metaphor of war as a video game, and through unusual and edgy audio-video. The result is a musical that is conceptually confused, but aesthetically rather charming.

The biggest problem with OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! is that it presents overwhelmingly as a parody, but of whom I can't quite tell. Take that, Wilhelm II! Damn, Francis Joseph I, are you ever going to recover from that sick burn? No, because you died 104 years ago. The broad national stereotypes which pop up again and again make OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! feel at times like Countryballs: The Musical. These aren't insidious stereotypes - I suppose it does count as punching up when you poke fun of the aggressively British Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig - but neither are they especially interesting, considering the nations as they are presented no longer exist.

Where OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! recovers is in its music. The show highlights songs from the front of the Great War, many of which I had never heard before. War music is typically simple and rousing, but something about historical war music is also eerily profound. Knowing that the men who wrote these songs probably died in combat, shelled or shot or gassed, guides the audience to every pained nuance. Smith's cast of young men and women do good work with the music; their voices are strong, clear, expressive.

I was especially taken with Patrick Teed and his bright tenor. Katie Ready-Walters likewise deserves kudos for both the best Serbian accent and British accent in the cast.

I am normally weary of projections in theatre (more often than not, they scream "We couldn't afford a set!") but Ian Garrett's projections make full use of the plasticity and playfulness of the form; they are clever, entertaining, and unpredictable, and add a powerful visual dimension to a show already rich in music.

OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! runs through 7 March at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto.

For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

Photo credit: Scott Gorman

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