Based on true events and using actual jokes, quips, puns and poems from the actual Wipers Times – an amusing satirical pamphlet printed in the trenches during the horrors of the First World War – this play is rooted in historic authentic.
Yet I have to confess all I could hear in my all the way through it was the distinctive voice of Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News For You, as it told the story tell of the paper (think Ypres for Wipers) that was somehow put together and distributed in the trenches by Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters.
The remarkable project started when the officers and men discover an old printing press while military scavenging in damaged buildings, trying to find materials to use in trench construction. They decide to have a go at being journalism (must be easy as journalists do it ha ha) and use humour to land swipes at those running the ar but all with a gentle touch to avoid overt anti-war sentiment that could bring the ever-present censorship down on their heads.
Directed by Caroline Leslie, the production interweaves the trenches, the officers’ “room” where they write their quirky prose, spoof advertisements, satire against the war, and also r’n’r “establishments”, a hospital ward, smart restaurant, newspaper office, with neat theatrical flair and clarity.
To the contemporary listener much of the humour is pretty infantile and smacks of a student rag mag and public school boys own review. But then these were simpler times and the soldiers were both extremely young, the officers often from that public school background, and class-ridden Britain.
Both James Dutton as Captain Roberts and George Kemp as Pearson play their roles superbly, that mixture of jolly good chaps from that pre horrors of mechanized war era, the soldiers are all more like staff in Downtown Abbey, straight from the parlor or the farm, and we have to have twittish, balanced with more grounded “down with the troops”, staff officers.
The story is peppered with pop up music-hall vignette which is of course correct for the era, either satirical lyrics to songs of the times or slap stick routines with a horrific, black comedy tale.
The plot follows a tried and tested formula of jolly capers in first half and darker second half, all a flashback, sandwiched between the demobbed editor, Fred Roberts, trying to get a job in “real” journalism. Lots of references to the Daily Mail, ha ha, inaccurate journalists, ha ha, which appeal to contemporary audiences.
We also had swiped at the Temperance Union and its influence on David Lloyd George who is also lampooned for his infidelity.
The story also asserts that while the Germans sang a song of hate in the trenches the British had humour and sang It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, which slightly jarred with another popular song used in the play being about killing fat Germans.
Also, the darkness was just not dark enough to really illuminate just how incredible this venture was and the fact that in the horror of disgusting warfare humour could be found. The episode where the editor is hit by chlorine gas is too gentle. Is the sister’s wiping a name on the blackboard meant to say that patient had died? Even the death of one of the “gang” is not as effective as it could be particularly as I couldn’t remember which character he as.
The shooting of each soldier as he tells a shocking joke when he pops up from a trench is, well, slapstick, without real bite. Similarly, when the men do go over the top it lacks the stomach churning awfulness of, say, Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder Goes Forth which used humour yet kicked you in the face.
So what do I make of the whole thing sounding like Ian Hislop? Yes, it is clearly an authentic work based on research and, of course, plenty of written sources. My conclusion has to be that it suggests the writer’s humour, the cheeky schoolboy-like japes and slightly snide sarcasm, is a hangover from that period rather than he imposing his style on the past.
Dos the play work. A resounding yes as long as the audience has enough knowledge of the period – which doesn’t sound as daft as it might seem at first. Lots of the obvious punchline jokes relying on knowing that Churchill was a war correspondence, Lloyd George was a notorious adulterer, the significance of the Somme, for example.
It smacks a bit of Oh What A Lovely War and Good Morning Vietnam but both were of their time and ground-breaking in their genres. This show is fine, it is entertaining, it tells a good story and is acted splendidly, but it just lacks enough bite.
Until September 16