With its football team on the cusp of Premier League glory, it is timely that a new play made in Leicester should explore themes of teamwork, bravery and what it means to be true.
Writer Ishy Din could not have pictured the football turning out this way of course, but the idea of the underdog is perennial dramatic gold and it is richly excavated in Wipers which makes its premiere at Curve in a co-production with the Belgrade at Coventry and Watford Palace Theatre.
It’s 1914 on the Belgian battlefields of Ypres (mispronounced at will by the Brits, we learn, as 'Wipers') where South Asian soldiers supporting British men are suffering huge losses. Four troops take refuge inside an abandoned barn – Isla Shaw’s design is terrific – for ten long hours while a lone soldier, unseen to the audience, holds the Germans at bay until French reinforcements can arrive.
British officer Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia) is reluctantly in charge. 'Please God, help me not to make a complete fool of myself,' he pleads before reasserting his authority in front of his three Indian fighters. They are four men in one enclosed space over one night as gunfire crackles outside.
The nerves should be jangling in those first few minutes and yet somehow it’s strangely flat, not helped by heated exchanges that feel like a forced attempt to inject energy and pace. Pace is good but it’s more effective when characters listen, process and respond.
But from a pedestrian start, Wipers works better when characters explain less of the set-up and reveal more about themselves. AD (Sartaj Garewal), in the event of his death, pens a letter to his son imploring him to be loyal, brave and true to himself. Thomas (the accomplished Ahluwalia) says he was 'never one for team sports' as a boy and we sense this will test him. His clumsiness in telling Ayub (Waleed Akhtar) that he went to grammar school is beautifully paid off when Ayub, in awe of Eton and Marlborough, assumes this aforementioned school based in the town of Grammar must be of equal stature. And the excellent Akhtar as Ayub tells Sadiq (Simon Rivers, again good among a fine cast) that he dreams of Indian independence if Britain wins the war.
But it’s in the preparation of food, halfway in, where Wipers becomes a more robust, engaging watch. Spinning out the meagre rations into something edible is mesmerising and funny. In fact the convention of having everything said in English, and yet the actor playing AD asking (in English) for a translation of what the British officer said, is a joy.
Wipers is a slow burn. Inspired by the true story of Victoria Cross winner Khuddadad Khan, it’s an important play for a city (Curve estimates 46 per cent of its audiences for its own shows are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds) and for a nation.
When the men are forced to confront why they are here and how – as a group – they might go forward then Wipers, ably directed by Suba Das, becomes an altogether more arresting experience. The four of them cannot stay there. Battlefields are beyond the door they’ve bolted. And when they step out into the light, your heart catches fire.
Wipers runs at the Leicester Curve from 14 to 23 April, after which it transfers to Watford Palace Theatre and Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.