Review: The Wipers Times, Leicester Curve Theatre.
As something of a student of the Great War, I imagined there would be much of interest to admire, but a little apprehensive as to how much would be new and how the story of the short-lived twenty-three issue trench newspaper could adequately fill the near two hours allocated. Happily, neither were a problem and this bitter-sweet tale tended more towards the upbeat and positivity in the face of adversity rather than dwell over-long on the hopelessness of their situation.
A single, cleverly designed set (des. Dora Schweitzer) kept the action flowing with a handful of props, chiefly tables and barrels, and some dramatic lighting (James Smith) served to cover all angles and moods.
The action starts, and indeed ends, with Captain Roberts (James Dutton) applying for a post-war newspaper job with his mining-orientated CV but emphasising his experience as editor of The Wipers Times as a suitable candidate for a writing career. The ultimate result is best left to be told by the play itself.
Following this brief preamble we find Roberts in 1916 at the front leading a company of men with Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) as his right hand man. The company consists largely of ex-miners engaged in excavating tunnels under enemy lines and the down time requires something stimulating to entertain them, so when they come across a damaged but repairable printing press, there is only one option as far as Roberts is concerned and that is to start a magazine of some sort. Dismissing “The Salient Times” as being “a bit too clever” they decide they need something with broader appeal. Taking its name from the way in which many on the line pronounced Ypres, they set about producing “something a bit like Punch, but funny”. An instant hit amongst the troops, irreverent to war reporters, the government, senior officers and the naively uninformed alike, the Wipers Times amused and irritated in equal measure. Sam Ducane’s brilliant portrayal of the indignant Lieutenant Howfield who thinks Roberts and Pearson are not taking the war more seriously is comical in the extreme, given sharp counterpoint by the “laissez-faire” attitude of his superior, General Mitford played by the excellent Sam Kersh who also took the parts of Sergeant Tyler and the “Civvy Street” newspaper man.
The production leans heavily on Music Hall for its presentational style and for the most part works well, occasionally threatening to become a musical but never quite succumbing to that level of twee. That said, the songs were accurate and of their time and I did feel for any Germans who had happened upon the auditorium by accident or design. Several scenes cleverly managed to accommodate articles and extracts from the Wipers Times itself so that the audience gets a real flavour of the content and not just the context. Hilaire Belloc seems to have been a favourite target.
There was a good bit of Daily Mail bashing too; much of it no doubt contemporary as the profile of its readership was broadly similar to today a century ago, but I suspect a hint of Ian Hislop’s hand, certainly in the delivery if not the actual comments.
The scene with a reluctant Roberts and the insistent seductress Madame Fifi (played by Clio Davies, excellent also as temperance campaigner Lady Somersby) in the estaminet/brothel was a highlight. Mention also for the brief but totally and absurdly true visit to the lines by the man from Guide Michelin as the war draws to a close – wonderful!
Although an ensemble performance in the true sense of the word, the relationship between Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson is the central dynamic. Dutton has the air of Hugh Laurie in Blackadder lll mode at times with Kemp adopting a more relaxed side-kick persona (think Wayne Rogers as Trapper John of MASH 4077). I’m sure you’ll get the picture. Together they work well and, but for a few over-long pregnant pauses in the first act (whether down to the actors or the director) that actually mitigate gravitas there is nothing to dislike and lots to enthuse about.
Towards the end, the scenes of deflation and readjustment as the war ends were poignant. As miners, and not fully explained in the play, the lower ranks were amongst the first to be de-mobilised, not through appreciation of their service but because back in the UK there was a desperate shortage of mineworkers. Roberts and Pearson at a loose end and wondering what the future holds for them; their real-life futures revealed when the play closes.
I should mention that the theatre programme for The Wipers Times is particularly worthy of note, not just giving the customary details of production personnel, etc but lots of interesting excerpts and reproduced content from the original periodical.
Words: Rob McCardle for Celebritain.