Thursday, 28 September 2017

REVIEW: Wipers Times at the Richmond Theatre

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war, the bravery and heroism of the soldiers and the futility and stupidity of the Generals tactics in trench warfare have been told many times in fine plays and musicals such as RC Sheriff's "Journeys End", Joan Littlewood's "Oh what a lovely war" , Michael Murpugo's "War Horse" and Stephen Foulk's "Birdsong". All of them created revealing and emotional connections with the soldiers in the front line. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have unearthed and tell the extraordinary true story of The Wipers Times produced by the soldiers on printing presses found near the front line in Ypres and occasionally written by the troops in the trenches .

While the play's appears to borrow elements from all the above plays in its settings, characters and its style , it does pay strong tribute to this remarkable tale and the unrecognised editors who put the paper together from 1916 to 1918 in Ypres and Amiens. The paper was made up of poems, stories , wry in-jokes and lampoons of the military hierarchy in a humorous tongue in cheek style that appealed to the troops and irritated some of the staff command. The style has continued in Hislop's own magazine Private Eye today.

At the centre of the story is Captain Fred Roberts as editor and Jack Pearson as subeditor played with great charm and an easy going nature by James Dutton and George Kemp . You can imagine the soldiers warming to their leadership style. This is contrasted with the stiff upper lip , play it by the rule book style of Sam Ducane's Lieutenant Colonel Howfield who wants to court martial them all and shut the paper down and secures the support from the temperance society and allegedly the Prime Minister! He is kept in check by the more sympathetic General Mitford played by Dan Mersh.

The style, like "Oh what a lovely war's " end of the pier show structure, uses music hall format to retell some of the newspaper stories with an ensemble of recent LAMDA graduates and they generate many of the laughs . At the same time Hislop does not miss the chance to have a dig at the Daily Mail and the modern press.

The female parts , the rather stereotypical nurse, Fifi and the women left at
home are played by Clio Davies and Emilia Williams but inevitably this is show about the team work, camaraderie and humour of the men in the trenches facing the dreaded whistle to go "over the top". 

It was great to see a packed Richmond Theatre gently chuckling along with the story although the show never quite contrasts this with the horror of war and fear and deprivation that the men must have lived with . Only briefly as they wait for the fateful whistle to advance or discuss those that have died is this hinted at.

It was nice to note in the programme that Roberts and Pearson 's heroic tale in publishing were eventually recognised by the Times after this play highlighted their war efforts.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★
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