Oh What a Lovely War (April 2004)

Review from the Mid-Sussex Times:

Oh what a great show

There is no such thing as amateur and professional, only good and bad. Whoever said it, and many have, it is a wise adage for a profession that can sometimes take itself too seriously.

In the case of the production of Oh What a Lovely War! at Balcombe’s Victory Hall only four of the cast of 26 had ever acted on stage before. In the hands of director Jim Knight, and musical director Douglas Wragg, however, this was a coup for each and every one of them who took this complex play, and thrust it into the limelight again at never a more relevant time.

There seemed no end to the talents of the cast of 15 men and 11 women, who, despite their inexperience, pulled off a technical and artistic masterpiece.

In this modest village setting, where the stage was enlarged to take the cast, they gave an utterly convincing performance that had, alternately, gravitas, pathos and humour.

With apparent ease they manoeuvred their way through too many scene and costume changes to count, running through the night from the stage through the hall's car park to reappear at the opposite end in another guise.

It was an achievement that, if in passion alone, did justice to the story of the greatest human tragedy of all in which 10 million died, 21 million were wounded and seven million remained missing.

The original 1963 Theatre Workshop production of this First World War satire centred on a series of short scenes, accompanied by songs of the period. that documented the critical events of the War To End All Wars.

It reached a wider audience when a young Richard Attenborough directed it with a cast that included every big name of the time in the British Theatre.

In Attenborough's portrayal the bleakness and futility of a war fought by men in trenches was etched in stark contrast to the detached machinations of men in high office who sent them to their inglorious deaths in their thousands and millions.

The vision of one man brought it to life again in Balcombe where the awesome frescos of battle scenes of the First World War decorate the wars of the Victory Hall.

Transport consultant Rodney Saunders turned producer to fulfil the vision he had had for 30 years of staging Oh What a Lovely War! in the shadow of Neville Lytton's 1920’s paintings.

His persuasiveness convinced the great thespian and Balcombe resident Paul ScofieId to record sonnets of the period, including Rupert Brooke's The Soldier, at the beginning and the end of the play.

Jim Knight, a former headmaster, and Douglas Wragg, the choirmaster of St Mary's church in Balcombe, and a company of 50 from the village, did the rest in a way that was at least as good as professional and at most, moved its audience to the point of tears.

Other individuals, in this instance, are too numerous to mention but a few moments summed up the luminosity of this piece of theatre performed in the most professional way by amateurs.

A duet of the Roses are Flowering in Picardy was one such moment along with the pleas for peace made by a hectored and vilified Mrs Pankhurst. A nurse, weary of seeing soldiers die on the Western Front, sang Keep the Home Fires Burning to such effect that you could hear a pin drop.

But arguably the most moving was the Christmas Eve exchange of carols between the British and German trenches that ended in embraces and the sharing of Schnapps and chocolate.

A German soldier's rendition of Silent Night to his Tommy counterparts spoke volumes of the utter futility of the battlefield, where the corpses piled up in mounds for, repeatedly, an allied gain of nil.

The audience, seated around cafe style tables, were each given a glass of wine from Balcombe Vineyard, an apt way to salute a vintage achievement.

Carolyn Robertson

Oh What a Lovely War poster
Main poster for Oh What a Lovely War by Robert Saunders

Reviews from the Balcombe Parish Magazine

As I write this the team that brought Oh What a Lovely War to Balcombe is slowly coming back down to earth after a week that I am sure many of us will never forget. The Victory Hall itself, with its awesome murals, was the inspiration for the production. The Hall was built to be a living memorial to the men of Balcombe who were persuaded to leave their homes in our green and pleasant village to fight for King and Country in a foreign field, from which many of them did not return. I hope that the members of the audiences who watched our production will feel that it was a fitting use of the Hall that was built in their memory.

After one of the performances someone came up to me and said, with reference to one particular scene. "We didn't know whether we were supposed to laugh or cry”. If this feeling was general then we succeeded. It is not a play that is intended to be easy on the emotions of the audience - or of the cast.

There were many people involved in the production to whom heartfelt thanks are due. The company comprised not only the performers on stage but also the musicians, their page turners, the technical team, the front of house team, the unsung heroes who managed the costumes and props, the set and graphic designers, the prompter, in total nearly fifty people. And of course very special thanks are due to our director, Jim Knight, and our musical director, Douglas Wragg, who between them converted the "vision" into reality, and to the Patron of the production, Paul ScofleId, who recorded the moving poems with which the show opened and closed.

But in the end whatever we achieved was due in no small part to the encouragement that we received from the people of Balcombe who turned up In their hundreds to see the show, and it is one of my few regrets that so many people who wanted to see the show were unable to obtain tickets.

A lot of people have asked me “What next?" Who knows - watch this space!

Rodney Saunders
Producer, Oh What A Lovely War

Scene from OWaLW.

I have always been appalled and fascinated by the First World War; a war which killed my two uncles and nearly claimed the life of my father. The play 'Oh What A Lovely War' mixes ghastly fact with battleground humour, a difficult balance to get right on the stage. Amid the poignant setting of the Victory Hall murals, used to good effect in this production, the cast largely succeeded in depicting the stupidity and brutality of the conflict leavened by the wit and courage of the 'lions fed by donkeys' into the slaughter. It was a memorable achievement from a newly formed group of amateur actors, many of whom took multiple parts involving a myriad of costume changes, on a stage not designed for such a complicated drama.

The recorded readings by Paul ScofieId, at beginning and end, of poems by Rupert Brook and Wilfred Owen perfectly captured the destructiveness and futility of war, lessons we have still not learned. Music also played an important part in this production: an engaging trio of two keyboards and drums linked and enhanced the action.

It would be invidious (and Impossible in a short piece) to pick out individual actors and supporters, but producer Rodney Saunders and Director Jim Knight must be credited with a large share of the show's success. They were extremely grateful for the overwhelming support shown by the Village. All profits are being donated to help maintain and improve the Victory Hall.

After so many years of silence, it is very encouraging that an amateur production on this scale has burst on to the village scene once again. After such an auspicious debut It must be hoped that another production will follow in due course. In fact I am told that people with directing and acting skills are actively being sought to set up an amateur company on a permanent footing.

But, for now, congratulations to all those involved in such a splendid 'war'.

Leslie Fairweather

Recruitment poster

Click HERE to view a PDF file of the programme for OWaLW (761 KB). To save, right click and select "save target as". The programme includes images of the murals from The Victory Hall.