It wasn’t funny, the First World War. Four million soldiers lost their lives in a gruelling war of attrition, one million of them British; and in many ways the nation never recovered. Yet as the songs sung by the men at the Front demonstrate, a certain grim humour was one of the essential weapons of war, helping to sustain morale in the trenches when nothing else would do; and nothing ever demonstrated the force of that weapon more clearly than The Wipers Times, a little satirical magazine produced at the front, for a remarkable two and a half years from 1916-18, by Captain Fred Roberts of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, his Lieutenant Jack Pearson, and their Sergeant, who had been a printer in civvy street.
The Wipers Times, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****
Meat Market, Oran Mor, Glasgow **
In trying to transform their successful television play about The Wipers Times into a stage show, Nick Newman and Ian Hislop run into a few difficulties. The idea of staging the magazine’s satirical content - from cheeky advice to the top brass to imaginary adverts for useful front-line survival kit - as Edwardian-style music-hall numbers doesn’t always work, often seeming a shade effortful and limp; and the show often lapses towards the kind of sentimental chauvinism it’s trying to criticise, portraying its one non-British character as a walking cliche of a French brothel madam, and vaguely implying that the Germans lost the war because they had no sense of humour, unlike us sensible Brits.
Yet in Caroline Leslie’s deft and good-hearted production, there is also a hard edge to Newman and Hislop’s story of how the paper was produced under such hellish conditions, and to the bitter criticism of the conduct of the war that underpinned many of its jokes. And most telling of all is the play’s poignant conclusion, which sharply reminds us that for many who survived the trenches, including decorated heroes like Roberts, the Armistice that took place 99 years ago this weekend marked the beginning of a long betrayal of their hopes for the peace - a betrayal which eventually saw both Roberts and Pearson leave England completely, unable to find any peacetime place in the country they had once risked so much to defend, with such remarkable energy, gallantry and wit.
If the First World War often involved throwing men’s bodies into a conflict that acted like a giant meat-grinder, today’s world has more subtle ways of reducing human beings to a mere collection of body parts; and television scriptwriter and producer Chris Grady’s debut for A Play, A Pie And A Pint, Meat Market, involves an interesting attempt to extract some black comedy from one of them. At 3 am, in a 24-hour gym in Robroyston, a suave banker called Bruce meets Fran, a middle-aged woman who seems to have had a hard life. Both have been called there, via an internet chat-room, by a recent graduate called Alex, who needs money, wants to do some good in the world, and has decided to sell one of her kidneys on the internet; and over an increasingly fraught 50 minutes, Bruce and Fran compete to win the kidney, by persuading Alex that they need it most.
It’s not a bad set-up for a story, in other words; but the delivery of it is so awkward - the narrative full of loose ends, the dialogue heavy-footed and slightly repetitive, the verbal jokes clanking onto the gym floor like badly bolted-on afterthoughts - that even the revelation of Bruce’s extremely odd taste in private thrills doesn’t give the cast, led by a persuasive Julie Duncanson as Fran, the energy they would need to transform this leaden piece of writing into a working drama; or at least into a play with something substantial to say, about the serious subject it raises.
Both shows run until 11 November