Wednesday 26 September 2018

The Wipers Times

Curve, Leicester

24th September, 2018

From the dread of crying, we laugh instead

With the centenary of the armistice imminent it seems of particular pertinence to reflect on the lost generation of service men that fought and died in World War One. Over the past four years of commemoration we’ve seen Northern Broadsides’ staging of Deborah McAndrew's new play An August Bank Holiday Lark, films such as Dunkirk and a screen adaptation of Journey’s End, and November will see the anticipated return of War Horse to the National Theatre. Yet, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have chosen a lesser known aspect of the period to home in on. The Wipers Times (named after the British Tommys’ mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’) recounts the strange but true story of a group of soldiers endeavour to publish a trench-grown satirical newspaper to the forces – ‘like Punch, but funny’.

If Hislop and Newman have a point to make – and I feel they do– it’s that satire has an important, moralising place in society. It boosts the morale of those on the frontline whilst calling out the ironies, double standards and faults of anything with authority. That right and enjoyment is timeless, but the two crowbar pertinent dialogue into a number of scenes to hammer the point home. Another weakness of the show, surprising considering the both of their contribution to satire on Have I Got News for You and in Private Eye, is that it’s (dare I say it?) not that funny. It definitely has its moments, best of all being the sketches taken from the magazine, acted in an over the top manner in an area (over the top?) of the trench, framed in fairy-lit barbed wire. ‘Are you suffering from optimism?’ delivers a cheesy advertisement voice in one sketch whilst a man lies in bed with a naïve smile beaming from his face. Another sketch lampoons the supposed roaming war reporters of the time, putting their lives at risk as they sip from champagne flutes miles back from the trenches. There are also some timeless digs at the Daily Mail. But other than that, in terms of light entertainment about life in the trenches, it pales in comparison to Blackadder Goes Forth.

The piece plays out upon Dora Schweitzer’s playground fort of a set. It may depict trench warfare as cosy, but it also by turns evokes a music hall theatricality. I can’t decide whether this lack of jeopardy presented in the play is welcome or even intentional. For all the background booms and downfalls of dust as the bombs shake the ramparts, our protagonists never seem to be in any genuine danger. And this lack of danger is perhaps what makes the gallows humour less effective than it should be.

The Wipers Times is well-acted by a tight-knit company, reminiscent of The History Boys, with one of Hislop and Newman’s triumphs being in the recreation of the comradery between the men on the front line. These genuine friendships are heart-warmingly portrayed by the cast. In a brief moment of reflection, Amar Aggoun’s Barnes reads from a poignant and shatteringly simple poem he wrote following his friend Henderson’s (Kevin Brewer) death at the Somme. For all Roberts and Pearson complain about being sent ‘too much poetry’ for the paper, the play conveys the ways in which the soldiers express themselves through veiled and artistic means, however crude the form. Sam Ducane plays the snivelling Lieutenant Howfield with an air of pantomime villainy, while James Dutton’s Captain-cum-editor, Roberts is a likeable lead, if a little idealised, and Dan Mersh plays the General with an air of affable complacency. Yet the play is an ensemble piece, and some of the most memorable moments are when this ‘togetherness’ shines through, whether that be in the music hall song and dance numbers, or quietly huddled, shivering in a trench waiting for the signal to go over the top.

The play is directed with unrelenting pace by Caroline Leslie, who excels in ensuring that every second of stage time is utilised in the evocation of the era. Scene changes feature pithy trench songs which are orchestrated and choreographed with sardonic ease – ‘Ten Fat Germans’, a play on ‘Ten Green Bottles’, was my favourite. Despite a lack of connection, The Wipers Times celebrates a great, previously untold story, about war, journalism, tenacity, and the need for humour in difficult times.

The Wipers Times is playing at Curve, Leicester until 29th September and then tours until 13th October. It then transfers to the Arts Theatre, London from 16th October to 1st December.
To coincide with the commemoration of the end of WW1 there will be a special gala performance of The Wipers Times on Remembrance Sunday 11 November at 6pm at the Arts Theatre, London in support of The Royal British Legion’s Thank You campaign.
The cast of The Wipers Times.
Credit: Kirsten McTernan.

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