Review: Oh, What a Lovely War! (Hart House Theatre)

Photo of the cast in Oh, What a Lovely War!World War 1 Satire Comes to the Toronto Stage, with Mixed Results

Oh, What a Lovely War!, an abstract, satirical play that traces the history of World War 1,  is currently on stage at Hart House Theatre.

The original version was written by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton in 1963. Director Autumn Smith’s version sets the play as a violent war-themed video game, with each scene an episode in the gamers’ quest. The conceit was apt and interesting, but in the end, the play did not work for me.

Oh, What a Lovely War! begins with an introduction to the key players in the war while six young men with joysticks sit cross-legged at the front of the stage.  One by one, actors representing six European countries give summaries of their country’s government, industry, and military strength —  including detailed numbers of planes, ships, and soldiers. I felt like I should have been taking notes.

The gamers then transform into six young British men who enthusiastically sign up for the war/game. What follows is a series of vignettes portraying key battles and events of the war.

Each section is introduced by a narrator – a bald head with an electronic voice projected on screens at the back of the stage. We see the battles of Ypres and Gallipoli, (among others), the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the eventual capitulation of Germany in 1918.  The play uses popular songs of the era such as ‘Long Way to Tipperary’ and the titular ‘Oh, What a Lovely War.’

Oh, What a Lovely War! was well acted and well sung. The rendition of the traditional Scottish song ‘Loch Lomond’ was achingly beautiful. I also really liked the choreography and movement throughout the play. The basic training scene which included push-ups, burpees, and leapfrogs was particularly well done. The projections by designer, Ian Garrett, effectively created different scenes and moods from snow falling during Christmas Eve to the inside of a church.

Although the recruits do have names, it was hard to tell one from the other. This highlighted the universality of the soldiers’ suffering and reinforced that they truly were “every man.” The anonymity also makes it hard to single out performers, because I couldn’t really tell who was who.

We also found it hard to hear. I often make this comment when I see productions in the Hart House Theatre. Perhaps there is a structural issue which causes the poor acoustics. But the sound design did not effectively correct for it. I often struggled to make out the dialogue. This was exacerbated by the use of accents which were not always clear or consistent.

Despite some lovely moments, for me, the play was too long and slow. My companion said she felt like she was in her high school Canadian history class where every aspect of the war was covered in excruciating detail. Each battle felt the same, and I felt the scenes dragged on. Maybe that was part of the point. War is a long, boring slog. Video games, however, usually entice you to keep playing. Here, unfortunately, our attention waned.


  • Oh, What a Lovely War! is playing until March 7, 2020 at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle)
  • Shows run Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm with a matinee on Saturday, March 7 at 2pm
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by calling 416-978-2452, at the Hart House HUB main information desk, or at the theatre’s ticket office prior to curtain.

Photo of the cast by Scott Gorman