"Hats off, this is offensive!"
by Anna Marks for remotegoat on 11/09/18

Approaching the centenary of the 1918 World War 1 armistice is probably the best time to expose this play on a nationwide tour. Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (big beasts of Private Eye) and produced by Trademark Touring (co-venture between somebody and somebody else) and the Watermill Theatre (how tricky it can be to discern how a play reaches a stage near you in this brave new world of investment and exciting markets).

So – the play is the story of The Wipers Times – a trench newspaper numbering 23 issues which emerged at Ypres (aka Wipers) when a group of the 24th division of the Sherwood Foresters found a battered but mendable printing press. A fortunate combination of printer, printing press and productive partnership between two satirical geniuses and the publication exploded into life as an instant best seller on the frontline. The Wipers Times gave its contributors and readers coping mechanisms – humour, reflectivity, creativity and agency – which played their part in aiding survival and morale in the inhumane diabolical chess board of the First World War trenches.

It is a great story and an important piece of history. Did the storytellers do it justice? The script seems lacking in depth, emotion and roundness – I continually wondered where it was going and where it had been in this over-processed take away menu of gobbets and caricatures sandwiched together with musical vignettes. It also needs a damn good edit – a cut of 25% of the material to bring it in under two hours might sharpen it up nicely.

The cast probably did their best with the cardboard cut-out characters assigned to them. For me, best of the bunch was George Kemp’s Lieutenant Pearson who managed to engage neatly with both audience and fellow actors and showed an impressive sense of comic timing. There was little differentiation and characterisation amongst the rank and file Tommies and when at some point in the second half one of them stopped one (bought it) it was no easy mental task to put a face to the name.

The set is a sanitised version of the trenches and there are plenty of whizzbangs and crumps but it all seems a bit like a children’s den – more drips and rats needed. In fact, generally, I felt this play short changed the audience on the mud, the wire, the dirt, the dark and the pain. It wasn’t as offensive as it could have been – n.b. this is an important question posed by the brass hats to their underlings taken by the Wipers writers as licence to joke. Which they did, beautifully.

And borrowing again from a long running Wipers Times theme - ‘People We Take Off Our Hats To’ – cheers to Fred Roberts and Jack Pearson – and the brave souls who tried to tell their story.

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