Actor Murray Melvin recalls war musical at Theatre Royal Stratford
PUBLISHED: 14:36 19 January 2013 | UPDATED: 14:49 19 January 2013
As Oh What a Lovely War returns to Stratford after 50 years one of the stars of the original groundbreaking theatre production has been recalling the profound impact the play had on him, audiences, and theatre.
Murray Melvin, now 80, was in his 20s when he was cast in Joan Littlewood’s satirical drama, but he still remembers it as if it was yesterday.
It was overwhelming both for his own personal career and in theatre history as the suffering of the First World War was brought to life through a documentary-style satirical musical.
Tickets for the new production – showing next year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the war – have already gone on sale.
Sitting in his office on the top floor at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, Murray takes out a little brass box engraved with the words ‘Christmas 1914’ and which features the head of Princess Mary.
Designed for everyone wearing the King’s uniform and serving overseas on Christmas Day, it was passed to Murray by a family who wanted to thank him after being so touched by his performance.
Wiping away tears, Murray recalls how that family and countless others came up to the cast after the show to thank them for being the first to finally acknowledge the suffering of their loved ones during the war.
Opening the box, Murray takes out a cutting bearing the name of its original owner, Sgt CH Jolly Havre.
He said: “In the play there is a scene where during a ceasefire on Christmas Eve the Germans suggest a game of football as really happened in the war.
“They threw an old ball, which at first the British soldiers thought was a bomb. Then they sent over a bar of chocolate and a bit of German sausage.
“Someone then shouts ‘what can we give them?’ and I reply ‘I know what they can have. They can have my Christmas card from Princess Mary’. The boxes usually contained a pack of cigarettes and tobacco.
“After a show this family came up to me with this box wrapped in tissue paper. I said ‘you can’t give me this’. It was clearly something they treasured and had belonged to their father or grandfather.
“But they wanted me to have it because I had the line about the Christmas box. They said ‘we have decided you have done more for him than anyone before’.”
Murray says he plans to put the box on display at the Theatre Royal.
It was one of many experiences he had of people coming to thank him personally after a show.
He said: “At the time there were people in the audience whose fathers or grandfathers had died in the war. The weight on our shoulders was tremendous.
“We learned not to look down at the audience in the second half when the fallen was counted because everyone was crying and you would just fall apart.
“After the show so many people would come up to you to thank you and say ‘you are the first ones to acknowledge what they suffered’. It usually ended in a lot of crying.”
Murray puts the show’s success down to director Joan Littlewood who first gave him a chance to join her Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal in 1957.
He said: “It’s a weird feeling, I can’t believe that 50 years have passed. I remember every detail of the show with such clarity. It was such an overwhelming experience, it such a groundbreaking moment, both in my career and in theatre production history.
“The production was so ahead of its time both as political theatre and the way it was presented. It changed the face of theatre.
“The bare stage and the back-projected slides, the flash of light and us running out of the darkness to do things – it was revolutionary back then.
“Up until then it was all box sets, loads of make-up and applause for the costumes.
“Joan brought us European theatre. She made war accessible by dressing us all as pierrots [sad clowns].
“What made it all possible was that the government secrecy rule was up, back then it lasted for 50 years, now it’s 30 years, opening up documents revealing the true horror of the war.
“Until that moment in time history told had been from the top down or by establishment and it was all about sacrifice, patriotism and red poppies.”
Murray said everyone in Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was always put to work.
“An enormous amount of research went into the play to dig up the truth about the suffering, everything was based on fact.”
Murray first auditioned for the workshop while still working as a clerk for the Royal Air Force and attending evening classes in drama and classical ballet.
On being asked to create a character he knew from life, he impersonated a director and, having found out that he had to return that afternoon to work for this character, Ms Littlewood commented: “The poor little bugger, we must get him away from there.”
And so they did, with Murray starting out as what he describes as a “dogsbody”.
He said: “I made 60 mugs of tea a day on a gas ring.”
Later he played small parts such as the messenger in Macbeth until his breakthrough in A Taste of Honey and, of course, Oh What A Lovely War.
After a long and distinguished career, which has also seen him appear on the big screen for famous movie directors Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell, Murray is back in the office at the Theatre Royal. These days he works as a voluntary archivist.
He said: “It is my way of thanking Joan. How can I not love her after what she did for me?”
As he glances out of the window overlooking the square outside, he says: “One day we will have a statue to Joan out there.”