The Wipers Times

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman - based on a true story
Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

George Kemp, Jake Morgan, Kevin Brewer, James Dutton Credit: Philip Tull
The Wipers Times Credit: Alistair Muir

This is the story of two remarkable men who enlisted during World War One and, in spite of being in the middle of the very worst of the fighting, managed to publish 23 copies of a newspaper they called The Wipers Times—the name used by the Tommies for Ypres.

The idea began when an old printing press was discovered among the Ypres ruins and one of the sergeants, a former printer, managed to get it working. With Captain Roberts as editor and Lieutenant Pearson as sub-editor, the idea of a newspaper became a reality, “a bit like the Daily Mail?” asks one man. “I was thinking of something a bit more accurate,” is Roberts's response, already suggesting the type of satirical humour to come.

It says a lot for the spirit of the men in the rat-infested trenches that, among the mud and slime, bombs dropping with deafening intensity all around and the knowledge that their life expectancy averaged six weeks, they could still laugh and sing. The Wipers Times, with its brand of satirical, subversive dark humour, went down exceptionally well, selling out hot off the press.

Hislop and Newman, spiritual decedents of the same ilk, have researched their subject well and turned what could have been an interesting documentary into an equally interesting but also thoroughly entertaining play, missing none of the original humour but also bringing into focus the danger and carnage which surrounded them. “The war is not funny,” but through the laughter that is the point they are making and director Caroline Leslie finds the perfect balance between horror and humour, switching neatly from one to another while keeping the action moving along at a cracking pace.

Designer Dora Schweitzer has set the play in a base camp surrounded by shored-up trench walls and above is the sky with lighting strung across rather like Christmas lanterns. This often forms the framework for many of the music hall parodies which are mostly lampooning the officers, generals and the news writers from Britain. One such was Military Correspondent Hilaire Belloc, whose wartime articles grossly exaggerated the scale of German casualties and in his name Pearson ‘proves’ to Roberts that, using mathematics and statistics, there was now only one German soldier left on the other side.

James Dutton and George Kemp as Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson have an easy camaraderie which is very endearing, especially as they are so caught up in their newspaper that they almost ignore the bombing. Chris Levens is enthusiastic and energetic as young Dodd and recently graduated Sam Ducane is snootily self-righteous and totally without humour as he condemns the newspaper, alcohol consumption and anything else enjoyable.

Women don’t have much of a role to play in the trenches, but we do have Clio Davies as a very efficient nurse, a flirtatious Fifi and a domineering Lady Somersby. There is also Robert’s wife Kate, a quietly calm presence with a touch of her husband’s quirky humour with her chickens helping the war effort by producing excellent and nutritious eggs.

The Wipers Times with its mixture of poems, musical hall jokes and ‘advertisements’ was subversive, often rude, sarcastic (mostly regarding their superiors) but very, very funny, but while the play makes us laugh a lot we leave with the reminder of what these men, all ordinary civilians and some hardly out of school, suffered in the name of war.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor