OH, WHAT A WITTY, AND PITIFUL, WAR
There is greatness in joking at the mouth of Hell; especially if those jokes are part of comradeship, a gift to those alongside. A hundred years ago in the ruins of Ypres, a weary, dusty group of the 24th Sherwood Foresters were scavenging for things to shore up the battered trenches, and chanced upon a hand-fed printing machine and some trays of type. A sergeant knew what it was, so a couple of young officers – Captain Fred Roberts and Lt.Jack Pearson – decided to produce a magazine. Not informative, certainly not piously or patriotically inspiring: a jokey satire-sheet, poking fun not just at the Germans but at the General Staff, the absurdities of military life, the war itself. Spoof ads and agony-columns, parodies of Kipling, Belloc, and cushioned war-correspondents: jokes about gas, and mud, and death; the script for a cabaret (“Music by R.Tillery”). Or “Questions a platoon commander should ask himself: Am I as offensive as I might be?”.
Forgotten for years, there was nonetheless enough surviving material and history for Ian Hislop and Nick Newman to mine and produce what – after a shorter TV drama-doc – has become a quite magnificent stage play. It is another evidence of what I have said before (http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p) that theatre in the last two years, has taught more vividly about the realities of WW1 than any other medium. In a claustrophobically, brilliantly realized trench and office set, eight nimble players scuttle, shift, hunch, joke, and evoke both the awful reality and the redemptive way that young men will use black humour and samizdat flippancy to survive. Both the leaders won the military cross, so there was no hiding from the reality of war; they tussled with authority but – again, a tribute to soldierly spirit – were defended by General Mitford despite the outrage (very entertainingly done) of his prim Lt-Col.
The officers – James Dutton a round-faced optimistic Roberts and George Kemp a dry, saturnine Pearson – are perfect foils for one another, and Dan Tetsell as the Sergeant (and the General) particularly fine: but all eight deftly double or treble, the one woman, Eleanor Brown, sliding from Temperance campaigner to Madame Fifi to Roberts’ wife.
Caroline Leslie directs , and the design, lighting, sound and use of music are of the highest production values, perfectly conceived. But then the whole enterprise has the marks of long, seriously loving, perfectionist conception, having grown over fifteen years. Particularly striking is the way that Hislop and Newman, with 30+ years of Private Eye joke conferences behind them, have been able to study the actual gags in the surviving Wipers Times editions and work imaginatively backwards to imagine the incidents and the banter which gave birth to them.
Theatrically, odd pop-up moments and music-hall moments give the sketches life, but the writers have the brains not to fall into expressionism or sub-Brecht gimmickry. It’s very straight. It tells the story. It is profoundly respectful. It has a more powerful punch than on TV, and is funnier too, with a live audience to gasp and laugh. It does not, especially in brief dark moments after the Somme, gloss over the reality of death and grief , or the dislocated bafflement of return to civilian life after the Armistice. It is, in short, very very good.
box office 01635 46044 to 29th October
Then touring: Sheffield, Ipswich, Salisbury. Deserves more. http://www.uktw.co.uk