2nd – 7th October
For more listings at Northern Stage click here
Review by Jack Robert Young
I adore Ian Hislop. You only have to look at his track record of critical hits to understand that the man is a genius when it comes to cuttingly accurate satire: ‘Spitting Image’, the ‘Private Eye’, and ‘Have I Got News for You’ amongst others. Other than Armando Iannucci, creator of ‘The Thick of It’, I don’t think I could name a better satirist.
Because of this, I feel that The Wipers Times by Hislop and Nick Newman – Hislop’s co-writer for ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Spitting Image’ – is a tad lacklustre. It’s a solid story, yet something about it felt unfinished. Like there was more of the story to tell. And in terms of satirical content, one of the characters themselves says it best: “we could be MUCH more offensive”.
It’s loosely based on a true story, set in Ypres in France at the height of World War One, 1916. After one of the reconnaissance teams brings back an old printing press, Captain Fred Roberts decides that, with the help of soldiers under his command, he will make a newspaper to entertain and inform the troops serving in France. By doing so, he can disconnect from the horrors of war and focus on the entertainment he’s providing to the forces in the trenches.
Wonderful! Brilliant! Tell me more.
But that’s just it – there’s no exploration of Roberts and his means of mentally retreating from the front lines. Instead the show becomes what is essentially a music hall performance, with every scene change punctuated by a choral number as the cast move tables and chairs to form various locations, before various jokes and sketches from the paper are brought front and centre for the delight of the audience. The music hall approach is not bad, it’s just unexpected because of the way the show was advertised and, despite being well-intentioned, it quickly becomes tedious. A subplot of the officer class catching on to the paper’s subversive undertones is effectively shelled by the infrequency of scenes dedicated to it, and by the lengthy scene changes that felt longer than the play’s action. However, the set itself is a visual feast, caked in dull greens and browns to reflect the primitive conditions, with a grand wall of wooden planks, mud and metal sheets standing tall at the back of the stage as a symbol of No Man’s Land lying beyond.
The Wipers Times is funny. I’m not denying its humour. There were puns aplenty, some of the skits were genuinely hilarious, and timeless digs at the Daily Mail were met with howls of laughter. The problem is that it does little to satirise much else: it becomes Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ without teeth.
One thing that did impress was the performances. The company created such a vivid world of camaraderie and madness in two hours and there were some genuinely heart-warming moments. James Dutton as Roberts bears a striking resemblance to Hugh Laurie in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, albeit not so hapless and with the addition of Blackadder’s wit. The soldiers under Roberts’ command have soul and character in spite of a script that does little to create individual personalities, resulting in some scenes becoming a live game of ‘Guess Who’. It’s a shame, because the performances were honestly top-class. Praise must also be given to Joseph Reed, Dan Mersh and Clio Davies for switching back and forth between three characters each with grace and ease.
I should clarify that The Wipers Times is not an awful piece of theatre. It’s a brilliant set of performances from very capable actors who are ultimately let down by an unimpressive script that, while a finished story, still feels like it had so much more to give that simply wasn’t capitalised on.