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:

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

What her grandad did in the Great War, now singer Marlena Kellie is re-creating in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War

Marlena Kellie, left, going through her Oh! What A Lovely War solo with Pick Me Up Theatre musical director Natalie Walker

ART is imitating life for singer Marlena Kellie, who has joined Pick Me Up Theatre’s 60th anniversary production of Oh! What A Lovely War.

From March 31 to April 8, at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, she will play her part in re-creating the shows her grandfather would have performed in during the First World War, singing the lead on Now You’ve Got Yer Khaki On.

Devised and presented by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1963 before being turned into a film by Richard Attenborough in 1969, Oh! What A Lovely War is a satirical chronicle of the Great War, told through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment.

This photograph of a First World War entertainment troupe shows Marlena Kellie’s grandfather, Richard Palmer, centre, with his first wife, Marion Williams, next to him in the nurse’s uniform

While rehearsing, Leeds jazz singer and actress Marlena realised the costumes and songs from Robert Readman’s production were reminiscent of her own family’s acting career.

“My grandfather, his first wife and my grandmother were all in entertainment troupes during the First World War,” she says. “I found some wonderful old photos of them all – and they are the real-life versions of what we’re doing on stage.”

Marlena’s Romany grandfather, Richard Palmer, had an act he would perform at travelling fairs and later in the music hall, and he was part of Fred Karno’s circus too.

This troupe of Pierrots – dressed exactly as the original cast of Oh! What A Lovely War would have been – features Marlena’s grandfather, Richard Palmer, and her grandmother, Greta Palmer

Marlena’s parents, Eddie Palmer and Shirley Kellie, travelled the country with their own club act, settling down when Marlena was three years old.

Carrying on the Romany tradition, Marlena can sometimes be found telling fortunes but concentrates on club singing and acting. She was one of the trifle-bearing women seen charging joyfully along in last winter’s Argos Christmas advert!

“I used to be embarrassed by my ‘otherness’ in school, but now I embrace it,” she says. “I live with two fabulous drag queens and a lovely little dog called Whoopie.

Marlena Kellie’s parents, Eddie Palmer and Shirley Kellie, who toured their cabaret act for many years

“I can’t quite believe how life has led me to Oh! What A Lovely War but it feels like it was meant to be.  My parents are sadly no longer with me, but I very much feel I am carrying on the family tradition.”

Meanwhile, York actor Ian Giles, who will play the Master of Ceremonies in Pick Me Up’s production, has found an image of his paternal grandfather, Sergeant William Giles, from Christmas Day 1915.

It shows his grandfather with men of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at Fleurbaix, near Béthune, northern France. “He is the sergeant standing upright pretty well at the
centre of the photograph,” says Ian.

“I can’t quite believe how life has led me to Oh! What A Lovely War but it feels like it was meant to be,” says singer and actress Marlena Kellie

” It was found in my nan’s purse when she died in the mid-1970s. She had carried it with her everywhere. Gramp survived the war and lived well into his eighties.”

In a moving scene in the play, British and German soldiers sing carols and have a drink together over the barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

Ian, by the way, directed Oh! What A Lovely War in September 1972 in Newcastle at what is now the home of Northern Stage. “The late Freddie Jones, who was rehearsing Peer Gynt at the time, used to sneak in every night to watch my ending, which he found profoundly moving,” he recalls.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March 31 to April 8, 7.30pm, except April 2 and 3; 2.30pm, April 1, 2 and 8. Box office:

York actor Ian Giles’s paternal grandfather, Sergeant William Giles, with men of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on Christmas Day 1915 at Fleurbaix, near Béthune

Did you know?

MARLENA Kellie played Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar in her debut for York Musical Theatre Company at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in November 2019.

Here’s Jonny Holbek, adding directing and sketch comedy to his theatrical portfolio

Jonny Holbek: Actor, director, sketch comedy performer

YORK actor Jonny Holbek is stepping out of the ranks to co-direct Pick Me Up Theatre’s 60th anniversary production of Oh! What A Lovely War.

Last seen on stage as the emotionally damaged Tobias Ragg in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at York Theatre Royal in February and early March, he is working alongside artistic director Robert Readman at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

“I’ve not done much directing before,” he says. “I directed a concert/show for York Light, A Night With The Light, at Friargate Theatre in June last year and also did some assistant directing for Nik Briggs for York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity in 2019.

“This time it’s in between assistant directing and directing. It’s co-directing, which is the toughest form of directing in terms of presenting a coherent production.”

How has the partnership worked out with Robert? “I missed some of the early rehearsals because of doing Sweeney Todd, with Robert doing a lot of the early blocking. Then we worked on scenes in separate rooms, and for the last two weeks it’s been entirely me, while Robert has been busy building the set.”

The collaboration emerged through Jonny expressing an interest in co-directing. “Robert suggested working on Oh! What A Lovely War, a piece that I didn’t know, but I know very well now,” he says.

“I’m really glad I said yes. What a great show it is. I’m so pleased to get to know its full cycle, its humour and its darkness.”

Devised and premiered by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London in 1963 before being turned into a film by Richard Attenborough in 1969, this satirical chronicle of the Great War is told through music-hall songs, hymns with rewritten verses and vignettes in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment, accompanied by statistics of the growing body count on the war front.

Jonny Holbek, fourth from right, leading the singing in God, That’s Good! in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at York Theatre Royal

“The first thing to say is that so many people died absolutely needlessly, and this show gives us the chance to explore that situation and find the absurd comedy in it, or in this case the careful juxtaposition of comedy and the horror of war,” says Jonny.

“One minute, the audience will be laughing at something; the next, they will be bulldozed by a harrowing image, a shocking fact – and when you make them feel an emotion, they feel it even more.

“The songs have a powerful impact too. A lot of the audience will know most of them, certainly the music-hall ones that provide the sense of pride and excitement the soldiers would have been feeling at first. That gives the show its energy, and then the other side of warfare comes through: the wistful songs that become gut-wrenchingly haunting.”

Contrasting directing with acting, Jonny says: “Firstly, they’re obviously very different disciplines, although they do overlap. In terms of performance, in both roles, you look for the comedy, the drama, and the nuances in the piece.

“Directing, I find it more rewarding helping others to find and highlight the various levels of light and dark to keep the audience interested; whether a scene needs to be reined in or played bolder.

“You also have that tricky balancing act of trying to encourage the best performances, without causing stress or knocking morale.”

Jonny’s daytimes find him working for the Rural Payments Agency, part of DEFRA. By night, he is a regular on the York stage, adding another string to his bow with The Dead Ducks, the sketch comedy troupe he has joined, made up mostly of University of York post-grads, such as Tommy Harris and Eloise Ward.

“We do little shows every few weeks,” he says. “The last one was in a big lecture room at the university, and we’ve also played The Den at Micklegate Social. This summer we’ll be playing the Edinburgh Fringe at one of ‘theSpace’ venues. No show title yet.”

Summing up his love of performing (and directing too), Jonny says: “It’s the camaraderie you build, putting together something in such a tight time frame. I haven’t found anything like it outside the arts. That buzz.”