The Wipers Times
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre
Curve Theatre, Leicester
And so The Wipers Times arrives at Curve, continuing its 2018 UK tour of duty and presenting another facet to the remembrance of World War I in this centenary commemoration period (barely two days after Akram Khan’s Xenos reflecting the contribution of non-white soldiers to the Allies’ war effort).
Written by comedy big guns Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, The Wipers Times is a homage to the men of the 24th Sherwood Foresters who, in spring 1916, chanced upon an old printing press in Ypres (pronounced Wipers by the Tommies) and served up a regular dose of satire and humour to keep the soldiers at the Western Front amused.
This has been something of a slow burn for Hislop and Newman, who, after years of rejection, were finally commissioned by the BBC to write a 90-minute TV film about the paper, culminating in a BAFTA nomination in 2014. Acknowledging its theatrical qualities, they went on to create this touring stage version, first performed at The Watermill Theatre in 2016.
Charismatic, whisky-loving Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton), suave Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) and civvy-street printer Sergeant Tyler (Dan Mersh) managed to get 23 issues of their satirical magazine out to the soldiers in the trenches between 1916 and 1918, keeping up morale with puns, poetry, and spoof adverts and articles.
The birth and development of the paper is told chronologically, topped and tailed by Roberts’s attempts to land a job as a journalist after the war (his Wipers Times being his first foray into editorship).
Almost constant shell explosions and distant gunfire are interspersed with music hall style sketches and songs, these fantastical scenes bringing the ever-present black humour to life, and Dora Schweitzer’s versatile set really comes into its own here. Claustrophobic and tightly packed with the accoutrements of life on the Western Front, trenches held up with planks and corrugated metal, coils of barbed wire lit up for the fun and farce of the music hall skits—a visual reinforcement of the contrasts between the realism and escapism at the heart of this true story.
Director Caroline Leslie makes the most of every scene change; they are little routines in themselves and a chance to share more examples of the verse and song featured in the original Wipers Times. Sentimentality is avoided and the scenes prior to going “over the top” are poignant and well-paced.
The cast are all excellent, timing the comedy to perfection, yet delivering sincere portrayals of ordinary men caught up in far from ordinary events over which they have little control. The potential minefields of stereotypical caricature are mostly avoided and it should be remembered the jokes and stories are the voices of the men who were living and dying in the thick of the war. The humour, quite gentle by today’s standards, is a big hurrah for the British mastery of the understatement, love of puns and the pricking of pomposity wherever it appears (usually in the form of the commanding officers).
There are now many culturally significant plays, TV shows, literature and poetry reflecting this period (Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth, War Horse and Journey’s End to name but four) and comedy is born of tragedy and hardship—it’s how we get through things.
The Wipers Times is a well-produced addition to the pantheon of remembrance and a respectful, tender tribute to soldiers clinging on to their wits in the midst of mud, whizz bangs and the watery misery of the trenches.