Friday, 31 March 2017

Review The Wipers Times

The little-known tale of a humorous battlefield newssheet written by soldiers for soldiers hooks in Francis Beckett, but then undermines its new angle on life in the trenches with material we've seen before.  

The Wipers Times
by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Hot Metal And Cold Steel

I went to see Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s The Wipers Times with high expectations and a lot of goodwill. The remarkable story of a newspaper produced in the trenches amid the horror of the First World War, one which really spoke to the men who fought the war and which survived against the odds, would be pretty well forgotten except by a few historians, if Hislop and Newman hadn’t revived it and persuaded us all to listen to it.

It’s a great story, wonderful theatrical material, and I was promised a barrel of laughs; which seemed a reasonable expectation, because Hislop is a very witty man and Newman is a comedy scriptwriter with a fine record.

And it’s a funny enough show too, with some decent jokes and a couple of nice songs, and it chunters along happily enough so you walk out of the theatre cheerful, but at the same time I can’t help feeling it was a wasted opportunity.

Hislop and Newman had a story no one has done properly, and I am not sure why they chose to spend so much of the evening re-treading old ground, with the result that The Wipers Times derives more material than is quite decent from earlier famous shows – or at least it appears to, which is just as bad.

Both acts include a scene when the men go over the top for the Big Push which has echoes of the famous Blackadder scene of nearly 30 years ago. Of course, it’s hard to write that moment without being accused of deriving it from Blackadder, but in that case why write it at all?  It wasn’t needed for the story the show was telling.

The idea of officers lounging around in safety at base while the men at the front took all the risks was done better in Blackadder and before that Oh What a Lovely War in 1963.  And no one has done it as well as Siegfried Sassoon, who was there:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

The best bits are when the authors are telling their own story:  how the military unit find an abandoned printing machine, the sergeant turns out to have been a printer in Civvy Street and knows how to work it, and the two officers then decide to start an irreverent newspaper for the soldiers.

There’s a clever framing device which tells us what the two officers did afterwards.  Neither of them went into journalism, though one of them apparently tried to get a job in Fleet Street and was turned down because of inexperience – the Wipers Times didn’t count.

As the two officers, James Dutton and George Kemp offer fine portrayals of gilded public school youth. But they are outshone by the splendid Dan Tetsell, who combines so well the roles of the sergeant, the general who allowed the paper to continue, and the deputy editor who refused one of the officers a job after the war, that I did not realise they were all played by one actor.

I had the odd quarrel with the generally sure-footed direction from Caroline Leslie.  The trenches seem a lot more comfortable than I think they were, and the two officers never seemed short of whisky, poured from nice decanters.

It was a pleasant evening, but I wanted, and expected, a bit more than just a pleasant evening, so it’s only an amber light.

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