REVIEW: Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ***

Ian Giles, front, leading Adam Price and Joy Warner in Adieu La Vie in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War at Theatre@41, Monkgate

PICK Me Up Theatre are staging Oh! What A Lovely War to mark the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop premiere at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Why else Robert Readman and co-director Johnny Holbek are reviving this old stager is not so clear on encountering the veteran work of Sixties’ agit-prop; rather like the surfeit of voices that are sometimes a struggle to comprehend in the absence of head microphones.

Body mics do the hard-working company no favours, especially Ian Giles’s all-important master of ceremonies, whose deadpan punchlines fall flat when dying in the muffled air. In contrast, the regular toots on his whistle could not have been shriller.

Ironically, when your reviewer – seated up on the mezzanine level – couldn’t decipher what the drill sergeant was shouting, it turns out it was supposed to be gibberish, but the joke was lost after the uncertainty caused by the earlier encounters with the lack of clarity.

Alison Taylor, front left, and Beryl Nairn performing En Avant!

Oh! What A Lovely War, constructed as a searing satirical chronicle of the First World War, as told through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment, was a landmark in British theatre history, prompting the intrigue surrounding Pick Me Up’s revival.

Likewise, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film account of the working-class Smith lads, Jack, Freddie, Harry and George, seeing initial hope swallowed up by the mud and stench of the trenches, resonated amid the Sixties’ vibe of Make Love, Not War.

From Blackadder Goes Forth to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Private Peaceful, Sam Mendes’s 1917 to this year’s BAFTA-winning All Quiet On The Western Front, the Great War continues to provoke eloquent, elegiac reflection across the arts and literature.  

Oh! What A Lovely War is closest in spirit to Blackadder in the trenches, in its sense of futility, chiming with Winston Churchill’s maxim in favour of dialogue over destruction. “Jaw Jaw is better than War War,” he forewarned, and in turn Oh! What A Lovely War has plenty of jaw jaw about war war, while making a song and dance of it with familiar music-hall songs from the Great War period and hymns fitted out with new lyrics to give them a satirical snap.

Florence Poskitt, left, Maggie Smales and Marlena Kelli in the Kamerad! Kamerad! vignette in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War

Against the John Cooper Studio’s back wall, ever more damning statistics of the body count are typed out across the screen, the factual counter to the officers’ cavalier attitude to so many wasteful deaths of the working-class cannon fodder.

They have the show’s most shuddering impact, ensuring that a sense of righteous anger prevails, as does a haunting sorrow, further enhanced by the presence of a junior ensemble.

However, the strident tones of surrealism, in part set by the Pierrot costumes with their out-of-period elasticated waists, always feels one step removed from connecting. Likewise, you can see the ever-willing cast having to push too hard to make the satire amusing in a show that starts to drag on, like the war itself.

Readman and Holbek’s period-piece production seeks to break down theatre’s fourth wall, often through Giles’s conspiratorial asides, sometimes through music-hall repartee, but the best scenes are self-contained, most notably for the Christmas Day exchange of gifts in No Man’s Land and the grotesque grouse moor shooting-party bluster among those making money out of the war (in a haunting forerunner of Covic contracts).

James Willstrop and Sanna Jeppsson, front, with the Pick Me Up Theatre ensemble performing Row Row Row

Inspired by Charles Chiltern’s radio series that combined First World war statistics with songs, Littlewood’s piece was constructed through improvisation and credited to the company of performers. In the spirit of that gestation, Pick Me Up’s multi role-playing troupe of troops is credited by a list of cast names and not by character, and it is very much an ensemble piece, teamwork to the fore, although James Willstrop, Florence Poskett, Alison Taylor and in particular Craig Kirby stand out.

Accompanied by Natalie Walker’s piano-led band, the songs transition from hope to despair, from perky to poignant, from Belgium Put The Kibosh On The Kaiser to I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier.

Reviving Oh! What A Lovely War does not evoke nostalgia and nor should it. Instead, it feels and looks out of its time, like Richard Lester’s 1967 film How I Won The War. Some vignettes still work, elsewhere the satire has tired or lost coherence over 60 years.

What hasn’t changed? War, huh, yeah, what is good for? Absolutely nothing. Except anti-war songs.  

Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight (6/4/2023) and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster artwork for Oh! What A Lovely War

REVIEW: The Sound Of Music, Pick Me Up Theatre, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria Rainer with the von Trapp children in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music. All pictures: Helen Spencer

Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until December 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, December 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk

THIS is Theatre@41’s Christmas show, as signified by the seven fairy-lit fir trees on director-designer Robert Readman’s end-on stage.

Those trees evoke both the hills, alive with the sound of music, and the home, one for each von Trapp child.

However, although it may Christmastide, just as with 1938’s rising tide of Nazism in Austria, the hills and the cities in 2022 are all too alive with intolerance, extremism and anything but music.

James Willstropp: A commanding presence as Captain von Trapp

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical was last staged in York by Nik Briggs’s York Stage Musicals in April 2019 at the Grand Opera House on a grander scale. Readman has gone for a more intimate performance, the audience around the perimeter settling into deeply comfy chairs more normally to be found in smart houses, but being confronted by unsettling Nazi insignia, from uniforms to Swastika flags and armbands and a hale of heils. 

This heightens the beauty of the mountain setting, the purity and devotion of the nuns, the love among the children, the goodness of Maria and the resolute political convictions of Austrian naval captain Georg von Trapp, when countered by the strangling grip of Nazism.

It also enhances the pleasure of watching the performers, when so close up, all the better for facial expressions in a musical where song and dance numbers are never more than gather-round family sized in Jessica Sias Wilson’s choreography.

Led by Helen Spencer’s Mother Abbess, the choral singing of the Nonnberg Abbey nuns has a haunting stillness, and even the beloved How Do We Solve A Problem Like Maria? is more driven by the singing than movement. Sister Act, it aint!

Alexandra Mather’s haughty-but-ice Elsa Schraeder

Spencer’s Climb Ev’ry Mountain, once taken to the chart peak by Shirley Bassey, is sung with heart and matriarchal concern, in keeping with the character, rather than as a showstopper, but is all the more moving for that interpretation.

The two leads could not have been better cast. Since making her York debut  in The 39 Steps in November 2021, Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson has rapidly ascended the York theatrical circuit, showing diversity, equally adept in comedy and drama, and now revealing her talent for musicals too.

A radiant stage presence, she shines as Maria Rainer, the unsure trainee nun who finds her true calling with the von Trapp children, as the young nanny with nonconformist ideas, bursting with love and kindness, independent, strong-willed thinking, a zeal for nurturing, and a delight in bringing joy, yet we are always aware too that she is learning, as much as they are learning from her.

Her Maria is full of good humour too, her singing uplifting in The Sound Of Music, light, bright and playful in the set-pieces with the von Trapp children, My Favourite Things and Do-Re-Mi.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria: “Bursting with love, kindness and independent, strong-willed thinking”

James Willstrop has been making the headlines this year…for his sporting prowess, swishing all before him on the squash doubles court as world champion and Commonwealth games gold medallist, but he has another string to his bow as an actor on the stages of Harrogate and West Yorkshire.

Now he makes his York debut as widowed Captain von Trapp. Tall, commanding, carrying off a suit with an air about him, he begins with righteous austere authority, issuing orders to staff and children alike on his whistle, but warming under Maria’s influence, while never wavering from his bold stance against Nazism.

He has a lovely tenor too, best expressed in Edelweiss, and is handy with strings too, this time the guitar, not the squash racket. Word has it, he is keen to do more with Pick Me Up next year.

Elsa Schraeder might be seen as the female short-straw role, but Alexandra Mather brings more than Viennese airs and graces to the sometime sourpuss, the children’s putative “new mother”. There is ice but shards of haughty humour too, and her operatic voice has crystalline clarity.

Sam Steel’s naïve delivery boy Rolf Gruber

Andrew Isherwood’s “political cockroach” Max Detweiler is dextrous rather than sinister, dapper, flamboyant, peppering his performance with a comic edge more usually to be found in the Emcee in Cabaret.

Daisy Winbolt-Robertson impresses as wilful Liesl von Trapp (a role shared with Emily Halstead), as does Sam Steel as Rolf Gruber, the naïve delivery boy who takes up the Nazi cause (in a role share with Jack Hambleton).

Readman has assembled three sets of von Trapp children (Teams Linz, Graz and Vienna). Saturday night was Team Linz’s turn, and how they excelled, working so delightfully with Jeppsson’s Maria, yet blossoming individually too, especially Poppy Kay’s Brigitta.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria dancing with James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp

Natalie Walker’s five-piece band may be out of sight, behind a screen, but they play their part to the full, those so-familiar songs flying high on flute, trumpet, clarinet, keys and percussion.

Readman and Carolyne Jensen’s costumes are top drawer, from Von Trapp and Detweiler’s suits to Schraeder’s dresses. Look out too for the children’s clothes made out of curtains.

Readman surrounds the audience with tied-back drapes and floral decorations, a typically theatrical flourish to his design, to go with those glittering trees and steps. The lighting signifies each change of tone too.

Plenty of matinees as well as evening performances affords ample opportunity to visit Theatre@41 over the festive season for the best of Readman’s three productions in quick succession (after Matilda The Musical Jr and Nativity! The Musical).

Andrew Isherwood’s Max Detweiler and Alexandra Mather’s Elsa Schraeder