Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Harry Curley: Oh What A Lovely War

By | Published on Friday 10 November 2023

I rather fell in love with ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ when I was a young teen, via the film adaptation of the musical when I discovered it playing on the TV one afternoon back in my distant past.

It’s no wonder, given what it does, exposing the horror of WW1 via perfectly pitched comedy and song. So, of course, I was interested when I heard that a new touring version of the stage show was headed to Southwark Playhouse, featuring a small cast of talented actor-musicians.

It’s presented by Black Eyed Theatre and directed by Nicky Allpress. I spoke to one of the six cast members, Harry Curley, to find out more. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ for any readers who aren’t aware of it? Where does the narrative take us? 
HC: ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ is a satirical concept musical that was devised by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop premiering at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963. 

The show ridicules the apathetic and incompetent leadership from the political and military elite of the First World War – including figures such as Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and Sir John French. However, it is impossible to look at the show’s derision in isolation and it is hard not to draw uncomfortable parallels to our own society today. 

The show begins during the pre-war period and nods to the unstable and precarious political relations in Europe that led to the Great War. With a rise of nationalism and militarism, events turn quickly, and global conflict erupts.

The action meanders through the whole four years of the war and visits a plethora of nations, characters and historical moments. Although informative, the show is incredibly frivolous, and there is a huge sense of fun as it critiques and lampoons the ‘war to end all wars’. 

Audiences will know many of the songs in the show, not least because some were popular during the First World War and have remained in the popular consciousness. They include ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’, ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ and ‘Hush! Here Comes a Whizzbang’, to name but a few. 

CM: I think a fair few people may have seen the 1969 film of the show – is the stage show very similar to that, do you think?
HC: The show shares the same episodic structure as the film, inviting audiences to look in on a myriad of entertaining vignettes, from across the span of the war. 

Unlike the film and past productions, this production is an actor musician show. Seeing the music being made onstage adds to the immediacy of the action – it exposes the simplicity of the music making – giving it authenticity.

I like to think the small ensemble orchestrations share the same can-do, make-do attitude of the lads in the trenches. 

CM: Can you tell us about your role in the production? What do you love about it?
HC: As a cast of six, we each play so many roles in the show it is hard to pinpoint what might be my main character.

The show is set with the backdrop of a circus and, subsequently, we each embody different circus figures as a jumping off point from which we then step into the shoes of one of our many different characters.

As an actor, it is incredibly fun to have so many opportunities to play with different voices, accents and temperaments. I particularly enjoy playing the Drill Sergeant, who yells in gibberish whilst leading the rifle drill and bayonet lunge – it is madness!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the rest of your cast?
HC: The cast is made up of six actor musicians: Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma, Euan Wilson and me. 

I am in awe of my cast-mates and it’s a pleasure to share the stage with them every night, their multi-talents are amazing to watch, and we enjoy making music and having raucous fun together on stage, night after night!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your director and their approach? 
HC: Our rehearsals went by very quickly, with a process of only three weeks, which for a show of this complexity was a huge task. The first week was spent mainly with our musical director, Ellie Verkerk. After our initial music week, we started to tackle the text and scene work. 

The aforementioned ‘war is a circus’ principle came from our director Nicky Allpress. This circus concept allowed us, as actors, to carry Joan Littlewood’s waggish satirical irony into our work in a playful and roguish way.

Although the show was written around the subject of The First World War, connections to the modern day exposed themselves very early on in the process. I think this is why the show lives on 60 years after its inception; the world is struggling to change. 

CM: And now, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you come to be pursuing a career in theatre and how did you get started? 
HC: I graduated from Rose Bruford College’s Actor Musicianship course in 2022 and since then I have journeyed from the Edinburgh Fringe festival with ‘Caligari’ to pub theatre in Highgate at Upstairs At The Gatehouse with jukebox 60s show ‘Summer In The City’.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester with actor musician show ‘Once’. 

‘Oh What A Lovely War’ is my first tour and it’s been amazing to visit so many different theatres across the country. I’m particularly excited to come back to my home turf and perform in London, at Southwark Playhouse.

‘Oh What A Lovely War’ is on at Southwark Playhouse Borough from 21 Nov-9 Dec. For more information and to book tickets see the venue website here.

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