Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Theatre review: The Wipers Times

Next year's centenary of the Armistice will probably see as many First World War plays as the centenary of its start did, but Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have got in early with their offering, and as befits editor and writer of Private Eye their angle is to look at a satirical publication. The Wipers Times takes its title from a weekly (if they could find the paper to print it that week) newspaper published from the trenches, which in turn was named after the English soldiers' mispronunciation of Ypres. That's where former printer Sergeant Tyler (Dan Tetsell) discovers a working printing press, which his Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) use to create a morale-boosting collection of spoof advertisements and takedowns of the official war correspondents, whose articles make it sound as if they're in the trenches, it's just that no soldier has ever actually seen them there.

They also include more serious tributes to their fallen comrades, as well as poetry submitted by their readers - significantly more poetry than they know what to do with.

Hislop and Newman's conceit, with director Caroline Leslie drafted in to pull it off, is that the story of the paper's creators is interspersed with the comic articles and spoofs, which are here turned into music hall interludes, with the actors coming out of character to provide song-and-dance routines and sketches. They're the highlight of the show, with Peter Losasso particularly good at switching between his dimwitted soldier and an energetic emcee.

I've said before that since 1989 any attempt to set a story in WW1 trenches has to compete with Blackadder Goes Forth especially if, like this, it wants to approach the subject as a dark comedy, and The Wipers Times seems to acknowledge this, moving the action between the front line and the generals who are the target of much of Roberts and Pearson's humour. General Mitford (Tetsell) lets the paper continue despite Lt Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane,) bordering on music hall parody himself, demanding its closure. Together with the efforts of Lady Somersby of the Temperance League (Clio Davies) to have the troops' rum rations withdrawn, a familiar picture emerges of people with no experience of the trenches trying to take away the few crutches that are helping the front line survive them.

As well as this familiarity there's two more problems the play has to deal with: One is the fact that there's not a lot of story here - The Wipers Times meets with some opposition but no steps are taken against it; their printing press is destroyed by bombing a couple of times but they always find a replacement. There's a framing device where Roberts fails to get a job in journalism after the war because his light touch doesn't fit the bleak picture the general public now knows of the war thanks to works like Journey's End (R. C. Sherriff was in fact a Wipers Times contributor,) and perhaps the play could have focused more on how the importance of morale-boosting like this was unfairly forgotten in later years (the paper itself was effectively forgotten, Hislop and Newman only coming across the subject by chance 15 years ago.)

The other problem is the one the production deals with best: The paper's humour relied on in-jokes, trench jargon and topical references, so anyone not on the front line at the time wouldn't have got all the gags, let alone a century later; the cast pretty much pull it off on talent and bravado alone, but this was never going to be a show where the laughs come as thick and fast as the subject matter suggests. In the end, The Wipers Times is never dull, but it also never manages to make you forget that this is well-trodden ground.

The Wipers Times by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman is booking until the 13th of May at the Arts Theatre; then continuing on tour to Cardiff, Oxford, Richmond, Southend, Guildford, Salisbury, Manchester, Glasgow and Cheltenham.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Philip Tull, Alastair Muir, Tristram Kenton.

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