Writers: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
When we think of the First World War, the casualties, the shelling and the mud, it is the pity of it that almost always springs to mind. Rarely do we think about the humour, the humanity of the men trying to find a lighter way through to the end. The Wipers Times was one of several satirical trench newspapers written, developed and printed at the Front with wide circulation and contributors from across the divisions and ranks. Its extraordinary story has been turned into a new play of the same name by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, based on their original BBC film.
Set in the muddy trenches of northern Flanders near the Ypres salient a happy-go-lucky division stumble across a printing press and decide to set-up their own newspaper. Before long their cheeky humour has become the toast of the Western Front and articles, jokey advertisements and poems flood in. But some of the senior officers are less than pleased with their regular lampooning and try to shut the journal down. But with a war to fight, can The Wipers Times survive?
Hislop and Newman’s play has translated reasonably well from screen to stage, capturing the subversive humour and the deep meaning the newspaper had for all those who worked on it, and to some extent those who read it. This play gives us another face of war, one grounded in fact, that men weren’t constantly and hopelessly under bombardment, disillusioned and ground down but found time to imprint their own personalities and humour in a way that made war easier to cope with it, and it is this that comes across most strongly in The Wiper’s Times.
Yet, while humour is the driving force of this show, it does detract from the proper development of character that could have made this a more satisfying experience for the viewer. Led by Captain Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) the men seem to blunder from scenario to scenario, each written specifically to inform a piece in the newspaper, which is then satirically acted at the back of the stage in Music Hall style. And while this works well to illustrate what the men produced, they do give the show a sketch-like feel that makes it disjointed at times.
There is very little character development so while the protagonists are extremely likeable war doesn’t seem to change them in a way that their continued experience of death and combat almost certainly would have – they are as wry and jolly in 1918 as they ever were. So, while they were producing something unique, by the end you don’t feel as though you’ve learned anything about them and why they did it.
There are a couple of fact and authenticity issues that lead to some confusion about the timeline; in the first issue, the Battle of Jutland is discussed then Roberts is hospitalised, goes on leave and returns in time to move his men to the Somme for the first day. Jutland was at the end of May 1916 and the Somme began on the 1 July, so 30 days seems insufficient to receive the naval update, print a newspaper and do these other things. Similarly, they talk constantly of mud but all the men are freshly scrubbed with not so much as a splatter on Dora Schweitzer’s costumes or set.
The Music Hall sequences work particularly well and the use of song between scenes is a nice touch. Performances too are largely good with Kemp in particularly adding warmth to his role as second-in-command, while Dutton is a determined and optimistic presence as Roberts. There’s good support from Dan Tetsell as a sympathetic General, although the female roles are a bit stereotypical – prostitute, nurse, wife – and probably superfluous.
The Wiper’s Times has lots of nice moments and a flag to fly about the audacity of the men who developed and sustained it against the odds, yet it’s overlong and sometimes feels like the First World War by numbers, ticking all the relevant boxes. It ends as the war did with mixed feelings, lots happened, and some of it was fun, but it doesn’t quite add up.
Runs until 13 May 2017 then tour continues | Image: Philip Tull