THE IMPACT of theatre on an audience has seldom been so poignant, so powerful since Oh What a Lovely War appeared on the stage 60 years ago - and blew up conventional expectations.

Joan Littlewood’s incredible conception revolutionised musical theatre, telling the history of World War One by using songs popular from the period, some with lyrics changed by the soldiers.

Littlewood was ‘a woman ahead of her time who turned the post- war, middle-class, male-dominated world of drama upside down’ and came up with the conceit of telling a truly awful story in comedy form, using a commedia dell’ arte - a circus troupe presented as Pierrots – who stage a wargames show.

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The determined revolutionary director, banned by the BBC and once monitored by MI5, produced work that was accessible and inventive, juxtaposing fun with a camp vaudeville style. With this form she was able to get across the message of unnecessary mayhem, the jaunty songs for example played out alongside hideous battle statistics of blind slaughter.

Littlewood’s musical, (recreated in film in 1969) craftily mocked the chinless wonders and the class system which sent innocents to their deaths. She signalled how public-school snobbery produced unbelievable levels of military incompetence - and inconceivable disregard for human life.

And of course, Oh What a Lovely War! still blasts us with a powerful anti-war message that is shockingly relevant. The ‘war to end all wars’, as we know, didn’t turn out to be the case at all. And as the projections in this theatre piece remind us of the horrifying, almost unbelievable loss of life, the wounded and the missing, we can’t help but be aware of the modern-day conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Yes, other theatre forms and films have featured the futility of war, some very successfully. But few will fail to have been inspired by Littlewood’s iconic, provocative stage show, which was at the vanguard of the defiant theatre movement.

And who could deny the critics’ comment when they argue that this bold and daring – and fun – piece of theatre ‘holds a mirror up to the world and speaks to us all.’

Oh What A Lovely War, Dundee Rep, February 14–17.

The Full Monty returns

The Herald: The Full Monty, The Theatre Royal, GlasgowThe Full Monty, The Theatre Royal, Glasgow (Image: free)

The theme of using comedy to highlight society’s ability to ignore the voice of those rendered powerless is also used to wonderful effect in The Full Monty.

Simon Beaufoy’s heartfelt play, which emerged in film form in 1997 starring Bobby Carlyle in the lead as Gaz, told of how an unemployed man struggling to pay child support and to maintain shared custody of his son. It expands to reveal how a clutch of similarly desperate men, each sharing the misery of washed-out Sheffield of the time, try to cope with the ravages of unemployment and a lack of hope.

We enter the world in which a steeltown has melted and all that’s visible to the unemployed is the scrap heap.

But Beaufoy’s story is also one of determination and hope. Inspired by the appearance of The Chippendales at a local club, Gaz – desperate to share custody of his son - and his mates decide to stage their own strip show. Of course, these northern lads are not ripped, buffed and plucked in the way of performers such as The Chippendales.

And it’s not about the chance to show off; it’s about taking back control, a test of how far they are prepared to go to regain their dignity. They are not just baring their bodies; they’re baring their souls. It just so happens that stripping seems like a sensible strategy.

This isn’t a one-dimensional stage play, however. Along the way we learn that the six friends have other issues to contend with. The lay-offs’ impact and closures has uncovered previously concealed secrets – of homosexuality, body shaming, weight problems, impotence, suicide, theft and estrangement, not to mentioned poverty, bailiffs and despair.

Yet, we don’t dwell on the darkness in Beaufoy’s script for too long. The writer cleverly weaves these problems into a story laced with black comedy and occasional farce. Out of the cleverly constructed darkness comes a little light of hope, in the form of a sense of purpose.

And this is a stage play that won’t struggle to capture the essence of the original movie (voted Britain’s 25th most successful of all time, and a worldwide hit) because, sadly, the desperate social conditions of the late Nineties are back with us.

Of course, the play offers no real understanding of why a packed hall full of crazed women will work themselves into a frenzy at the very thought of six ordinary blokes whipping out their holiday money. But that’s a story for a different time.

The Full Monty, The Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 20 – 24.

Don’t Miss:

The Time Machine set to be staged at Perth Theatre from February 20-24 doesn’t take HG Wells’ tale as seriously as it perhaps might, but this West End hit is nevertheless a comedy guarantee.

This goofball show makes the author himself a time-traveller. And along the way there are songs by Cher and jokes about (easy targets) Harry and Meghan. Oh, and one audience member is invited to dress up in a monstrously bad Morlock outfit. Featuring Michael Dylan, George Kemp and Amy Revelle.