Review by Matthew Forrest
What do you think of whenever the First World War is mentioned? The trenches? The mud? The tragic loss of life? People of a certain age, myself included, will be reminded of GCSE History lessons, with poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It would be fair to say that this period in history is not remembered for its’ humour or biting comedy. However, writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are on-hand to give us an alternative and surprising version of the Great War through their play The Wipers Times.
The Wipers Times was a satirical magazine produced on the frontline by soldiers who, when not dodging German mortars, were sharpening their satirical swords and giving the military top-brass a good savaging. The magazine grew with every passing publication and provided the ‘Tommys’ with a morale boosting spot of light relief.
Adapted from Hislop and Newman’s BBC film of the same name, the play focuses on a band of soldiers from the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters. Whilst based in Ypres, they stumble upon a printing press and with this, Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson hit upon the idea of writing a journal made up of jokes and skits to send up the grim situation they find themselves in. Fake adverts and spoof war reports are the order of the day as the magazine gains popularity with the troops whilst raising the ire of those in command.
This is an excellent piece of the theatre and well worth going to see. As you would expect from writers of their calibre, the jokes are bang on point, and although they freely admit they lifted the best gags directly from the pages of ‘The Wipers’, this is their love letter to a publication which proceeds magazines such as Viz, Punch, and their own magazine Private Eye. It provides a fascinating insight into satire as well as the British stiff-upper-lip. There are gags about the Daily Mail and ridiculous facial hair that, despite being 100 years old, still seem relevant today thus proving a good gag done properly will always be timeless.
The cast are on top form: James Dutton and George Kemp are excellent as Roberts and Pearson and it is their friendship which drives the play. They are supported by a great, young cast of actors who really show the camaraderie and spirit of the time, made all the more poignant with the loss of one of their ranks.
Director Caroline Leslie has got the balance between humour and pathos just right. Leslie has got the tone spot-on and has judged it exceptionally well. The comedic set-pieces of the musical hall numbers and mock adverts are the highlights; they tip more than a nod and wink to Monty Python’s Flying Circus or The Goons and fans of this style of humour will love it.
The production design is first class, with Dora Schweitzer’s claustrophobic set design in conjunction with Steve Mayo’s booming sound scape: yes this is a comedy but you’re only a moment away from potential catastrophe, as the debris falls from the ceiling, you feel the soldiers peril and part of the action.
The production does have a few very minor issues. At times some of the dialogue was lost; I think maybe the microphones needed turning up a touch.
The Wipers Times is a funny, sharp, entertaining snap-shot of a little known part of Britain’s history, but more importantly it’s a celebration of something we do better than anyone the world over…….”taking the p**s”.
The Wipers Times is on at the Manchester Opera House till the 4th November