Touring – reviewed at Manchester Opera House
Guest reviewer: Elise Gallagher
Set in the mud-ridden trenches of Northern Flanders an unlikely band of soldiers stumble upon a printing press amongst the bombed-out ruins of Ypres. Here, the Wipers Times is born.
The play opens with the paper’s editor Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton), who is struggling to find a job in post-war Fleet Street. However, The wealth of the narrative follows Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp) of the 12th Battalion, who head the infamous paper.
The paper wasn’t concerned with the words of so-called ‘war experts’. Instead, they offered their readers a cocktail of satire, parodies, poems, spoof advertisements and cartoons -perfectly illustrating that humour is a relief to anyone, even in their darkest times. When you think of the First World War images of death, destruction and ruin come to mind, not of the humanity and humour of the men who fought in it. Refreshingly, this play gives another face to the First World War, a perspective I haven’t witnessed before.
Long-time collaborators Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have already made an award-winning television film in 2013 from this story; here, they deliver a thoroughly-researched production punctuated with facts. As editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, it’s clear to see why Hislop was attracted to the story.
Caroline Leslie’s direction allows for scenes to seamlessly alternate between that of military attack to a music-hall comedy sketch. Dora Schweitzer’s design merges the confines of the trenches and barbed wire fence to create a light-up frame to host the paper’s vaudevillian sketches.
The narrative was carried by a stand-out cast who had undeniable chemistry. Dutton and Kemp particularly shone, leading their cast expertly and readily filling the theatre with laughter. It’s clear to see why Dutton has attracted the attention of prestigious awards such as WhatsOnStage’s Best Newcomer. Dutton and Kemp are absolute delights who have a clear command over comedy – I look forward to seeing what they do next.
I genuinely liked this production. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the venue of Manchester’s Opera House was ill-suited for it. For such a unique tale of an extraordinary situation and characters, I found the venue was too large and overshadowed the story, diluting the warmth and feeling from the audience before they had a chance to receive it.
Whilst the puns are one of the main driving forces in this production, the jokes eat away at time which could have been spent on character development. There are truly touching moments amongst the mockery, such as a young officer writing a poem dedicated to his friend who has been killed in action.
The story progresses without escalating into powerful drama – I believe a conscious choice, but one many may not expect from a play about the First World War. Our characters seem to only exist within the confines of the war, which many may not like, however, I don’t see too much of an issue with this. After all, once the war was over, the paper ceased to exist.
Rather sadly, the audience learns that the editors of the Wipers Times were forgotten. Hislop, Newman, the cast and crew have ensured that this will no longer be the case. God bless the piss takers.
The Wipers TImes runs at the Manchester Opera House until Saturday 4th November 2017
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