Writer: Ishy Din
Director: Suba Das
Reviewer: James Garrington
Among the wealth of material written about the First World War, there is actually very little drama based on the contribution of South Asian soldiers, even though by the end of the war over one-and-a-half million of them had crossed the ocean to fight with the Allied armies. Wipers is a new play, commissioned by The Curve and written by Ishy Din, that attempts to rectify that situation.
The piece is based around five men – though we only get to meet four of them, who have taken refuge in a barn in the middle of the battlefield. The fifth man, represented only by the distant sound of his machine-gun, is Khudadad Khan, who became the first non-British person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The concept promises much, but never quite manages to take the audience deep enough to create something special. In fact, in some ways, it could be viewed as hardly more than a fairly formulaic culture-clash piece – the sort of thing that will be familiar to many – although it does manage to add the extra layers of wealth, class, and education into the mix. Therein maybe lies a difficulty, in that the 90-minute running time is not really sufficient to explore everything that is introduced, so some references almost come and go, barely noticed.
Young white officer Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia) is a newcomer, in charge of a group of Indian soldiers – and has arrived with all the stereotypical preconceptions and ignorance about the troops he is leading. He arrives speaking no Punjabi, not understanding anything about the different culture and traditions, and with a “look at all these things we English have done for you” attitude. He is joined by three Indians from different backgrounds – experienced but vulnerable Sadiq (Simon Rivers), veteran AD (Sartaj Garewal) who speaks no English, and young rich boy Ayub (Waleed Akhtar). The cast works hard and gives competent performances as the Indians bicker among themselves and Thomas undergoes a very quick journey from ignorance to understanding.
Despite the concept, this never really feels like a war setting. The bombardment and machine-gun fire is quiet and distant and, although they are holding the barn against attack, you never get the sense of danger lurking just outside the door, the sort of danger that serves to throw people together despite their differences. The setting is not dissimilar to Journey’s End, but while Sherriff’s piece feels tense and claustrophobic, the size of the set (Isla Shaw) and the placing of the action here serve to miss that element.
The use of accent is interesting: the Punjabi sections are delivered as standard Midlands-accented English, and the English dialogue in a crisp, stilted manner – we are looking at this from an Asian perspective. This also leads to an amusing scene where and Thomas and AD, who speaks no English, are trying to communicate, with AD adopting all of the classic British traits in such situations – raising his voice, gesticulating and so on, creating a good sense of role-reversal. Garewal also demonstrates a different use for a bayonet, as he very slickly chops garlic and chillies – all part of cooking a dal on stage, which fills the theatre with some very tempting smells.
There is no doubt that there are many stories that ned to be told about these issues, and Wipers is a start – though perhaps a start that needs a little more work. It’s competent, with some touching moments, but some way from what it might have been.
Runs until 23 April 2016 | Image: Pamela Raith