Writers : Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: Steve Turner
Familiar to many from his television appearances and his editorship of Private Eye, it should come as no surprise that, Ian Hislop’s The Wipers Times is shot through with satire, digs at authority and also a couple of more contemporary jabs at some familiar targets.
Written together with Nick Newman the cartoonist from Private Eye, the play explores the fascinating story of how two officers dreamt up the idea of a newspaper for the troops, inspired by the chance find of a printing press whilst on a scavenging hunt for material to shore up the trenches. Perhaps inspired in part by their role in the war, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson took on the task of shoring up the morale of the men at the front with humour. Censorship being what it was they were forbidden from writing anything about the war itself so concentrated on poking fun at the Top Brass, writing spoof reports from non-existent battlefields, publishing the seemingly endless supply of poetry from soldiers, and fabricating adverts for items such as wire cutters with an umbrella attached to stop the user getting wet.
The play itself features many sketches, songs, poems and adverts taken from the pages of The Wipers Times itself; leading to a feel of almost a musical hall review and it is perhaps this that leads to a feeling that much like a lot of the shells fired, the show doesn’t quite hit its target.
There is plenty to laugh at, even with most of the humour being of its time, we know enough of the story of the First World War to understand the sentiments involved. The songs and sketches are all funny in themselves but there is a lack of depth to all the characters that lends the play a somewhat superficial air, skating over all of the trials and tribulations of the company where maybe some more exploration would have been welcome.
James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson make a very engaging pair of officers, Roberts always optimistic, daring and enthusiastically pushing the boundaries of what they will put into the paper, Kemp acting as a sounding board and striking a more sombre, yet still light-hearted tone throughout. As the two main protagonists, they are excellent, keeping a positive outlook in the most trying of circumstances and always looking out for their men.
Their alter egos at HQ, Dan Mersh as General Mitford and Sam Ducane as Lieutenant Colonel Howfield are also on great form, with Mersh imbuing the General with a deeper understanding of the value of the paper to the tommies, whilst Ducane is suitably grating as the ever officious Howfield, demanding punishments for the officers involved in the paper and trying to get it shut down. Mersh also plays the ever-resourceful Sergeant Tyler, seemingly able to conjure up printing presses from nowhere even in the heat of a bombardment.
Designer Dora Schweitzer has come up with a superbly presented set, with a dugout, trenches and the barbed wire and glimpses of the sky above all contained in the one design and, together with some excellent lighting, the action is non stop.
Altogether an enjoyable delve into an intriguing episode in a war that has produced countless stories, one is still left with a desire to know more about the actual characters involved, perhaps at the expense of some of the jokes as this is an incredible story that deserves more widespread recognition.
Runs until 21 October 2015 then on tour until 25th November | Image: Philip Tull