Arts Theatre Spring 2017; Autumn 2018
An amusing bit of little-known history is not done full justice by a half-hearted production, generating no more than the occasional mild chuckle where there should be full-throated laughter mixed with outrage.
True story: some British soldiers in the Great War trenches came across a small printing press and, between the war's bouts of boredom and panic, turned out a satirical magazine modelled on Punch, treating the war and the army with the healthy disrespect of the ordinary soldier.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (comic writing partners since the Spitting Image days along with their separate accomplishments) turned the story into a TV movie in 2014, and have now adapted it for the stage.
Along with the narrative, we get lots of samples of the magazine's parody articles, parody poems and parody advertisements. Some just come up in conversation, some are staged as comic sketches and some are turned into Music Hall songs.
One problem with this stage version is that it seems never quite sure what its mode is, realism or phantasmagoria, and so it doesn't really commit itself to either.
A fictional frame has the magazine's editor applying for a newspaper job after the war and being rejected because he has no experience in 'real' journalism, and we are told of soldiers killed or wounded in battle.
But the realism is repeatedly interrupted as actors literally pop up from behind some scenery for one- or two-liner gags, or the scene transfers to a music hall stage for a song and dance.
Yes, you've spotted it by now. The ghost of Joan Littlewood and Oh What A Lovely War hangs over this show, and not to The Wipers Times' benefit.
This show almost completely lacks (and probably wasn't really trying for) Littlewood's hard-edged satire and moral outrage. But their absence is palpable and contributes to the production's sense of half-heartedness.
And it may be that lack of comic edge that makes us so aware of how by-the-numbers the writing and construction of the show are.
When, after a string of comic poems, we encounter an uneducated soldier's sincere tribute to a fallen friend, the rough eloquence is moving – but it is also right on schedule.
There is the obligatory toffee-nosed officer way behind the lines who is outraged by all the disrespect and plain fun, and the obligatory senior officer wise enough to appreciate the harmless safety valve of the humour – and two more boxes get ticked off in the what-to-include list.
At least on Press Night there was a tentativeness to many of the performances, too many pauses suggesting no one was sure whose cue it was, too many scenes that just petered out rather than hitting their punchlines – all suggesting under-rehearsal or inadequate direction from Caroline Leslie.
The timing, the theatrical energy and the comic punch may all improve in the course of the run. But right now The Wipers Times is an interesting history lesson and a hint of what could have been done with the material more than a satisfying evening's theatre.
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Review - The Wipers Times - Arts Theatre 2017