The Wipers Times

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Trademark Touring Limited in association with The Watermill Theatre

Arts Theatre

From 21 March 2017 to 13 May 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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In 1916, in shell-shattered Ypres, a party of soldiers from the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment (the Sherwood Foresters) found a strange piece of equipment. One of their number, Sergeant Tyler a printer in civvy-street, recognized a platen press, a type called the Arab made in Halifax in 1872. Their officer, Captain Roberts recognized an opportunity: a magazine produced on the front line to cheer up the troops.

This is the story of those men and their magazine, called The Wipers Times (Wipers being what the Tommies called Ypres). With Fred Roberts as editor and his No 2, Lieutenant Jack Pearson, as assistant editor, they set out to produce a paper that would report how it was, but with humour, like Punch “but with jokes” as they themselves joked.

Written at first by themselves (advertisements and all) and then with contributions from many it saw the funny side of the horror, satirised the top brass, lampooned the war reports by those who didn’t know the half of it and kept up the spirits of soldiers snapped it up enthusiastically. Among the skits that offered a recognizable ribald reflection of the real situation is a record of respect for each other and of brave comradeship.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s association with Private Eye makes them appropriate tellers of this story. They have framed it with an interview in the Daily Mail office when Roberts applied for a job there post-war and, as they recount the paper’s creation and give a glimpse of life at Ypres and on the Somme, they cut away to items from the papers presented like revue numbers with light bulbs above the parapet of the designer Dora Schweitzer’s trench/dug-out setting, or downstage as acts introduced by a music hall chairman.

James Dutton and George Kemp have a nicely balanced relationship as Roberts and Pearson. There are brief glimpse of Roberts on leave in London, Pearson visits him when he is being treated in a field hospital and we see him declining the attractions of a French Madame Fifi (who turns out to be a spy), but the action concentrates on creating the paper. We do see them gathering before action ready to “go over the top” but the horrors of their situation are largely shown indirectly, through the jokes.

The comic sketches are presented with plenty of brio and need to be for they are often more pointed than funny; it’s their context that matters. They may be true to the original but Caroline Leslie’s direction places a little too much emphasis on being light-hearted, it could do with being more savage. Songs from the trenches are used to bridge scene changes but, partly perhaps because their lyrics are not sung clearly, the irony of them seems blunted.

Though “real” life and satire tend to alternate in most scenes, those showing superior officers’ reactions to The Wipers Times manage to run them together. Here is a real situation providing self-satire as Sam Ducane’s obnoxious prig of a Lieutenant Colonel complains about its subversive ridicule of the top brass, even a society anti-alcohol campaigner trying to get the paper silenced while General Mitford wisely sees its humorous insubordination as a safety valve for the soldier’s frustrations and tensions.

Dan Tetsell is the subtly played General as well as a delightfully warm Sergeant Tyler and the pompous Daily Mail editor. It is a strong cast throughout, whether in uniform or popping up in the sketches.

Over two hours plus interval, the pattern of the show becomes a trifle repetitive in its jokiness, though the barrages of Steve Mayo’s sound design are a powerful reminder of what is going on over the top of the parapet.