Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 12th May, 2016
Ishy Din’s new play, co-produced by the Belgrade with Leicester’s Curve Theatre and Watford’s Palace Theatre, is a good fit for the B2 space. Isla Shaw’s impressive set brings us inside a barn near the French town of Ypres. Rafters spread like the ribs of a wrecked ship or a beached whale, as though the armies at war around it are fighting over something that’s already dead. With atmospheric lighting by Prema Mehta and sound design by Jon Nicholls that enables to imagine the conflict raging offstage, the scene is set for an engaging and powerful drama.
Into the barn come commanding officer Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia) and Sadiq (Simon Rivers), following orders to secure the location. An appealing Ahluwalia convinces as the young toff, out of his depth – even his salutes betray his nervousness. Rivers’s Sadiq is more practical, a professional soldier. They are joined by Sartaj Garewal as AD and, later, Waleed Akhtar as Ayub. Humour comes from the clash of cultures and the language barrier. Subtly, the actors use different accents depending on who they’re conversing with. Ahluwalia is ‘teddibly, teddibly’ upper class Brit – when the men speak to him, their Indian accents are thicker. When the men speak among themselves, they’re ordinary, working class blokes.
Rivers and Garewal are especially strong – perhaps that’s unfair: this is an excellent quartet! – in their heated and often very funny exchanges. Through contact with these men, Thomas grows in confidence and learns appreciation of their culture, through cuisine and their respect for the fallen. Din’s tight script enables us to get to know these men, as Thomas gets to know them – it’s reminiscent of Journey’s End, in this respect, so that when they finally leave the barn to face their fate (shades of Blackadder Goes Forth here!) we care about what might become of them.
Director Suba Das slowly winds us up. Tense moments, loud moments, are contrasted with humour and silence. It’s a timely reminder of our common humanity: these soldiers fought on our side, even if they weren’t exactly sure what they were fighting for. In these times of rising resentment against the foreigner using our resources, the play is starkly relevant as well as marking the sacrifice of other nations supporting the British cause during WW1.
More fun than you might expect with emotionally charged, engaging performances, Wipers is a superb addition to the ongoing centennial commemorations of the so-called Great War.