Writers: Ian Hislop & Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Whilst enduring the horror and brutality of the trenches during the First World War a group of soldiers of the 24th Division, the Sherwood Foresters, salvaged an old printing press from a bombed out building in the Belgium town of Ypres, mispronounced as Wipers by British soldiers. Led by Captain Fred Roberts they created a satirical newspaper titled The Wipers Times; full of subversive sketches and witticisms designed to entertain their fellow troops with jokes reflecting the reality of the war.
As long-term editor and contributor to satirical current affairs magazine Private Eye, writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are perhaps spiritual successors to Captain Roberts and his men; they combine their own writing experience with verbatim excerpts from the real Wipers Times in their rendering of this extraordinary true story.
Although first seen as a BAFTA nominated 90-minute film for the BBC in 2013, Hislop and Newman had initially begun writing The Wipers Times as a play and this eventual return to the form proves a wise decision. There is an inherent theatricality to the material with the comedy vignettes and music hall parodies suited to the stage, particularly the proscenium arch of the Opera House.
Dora Schweitzer’s effective design merges the confined shelters below ground with the open stars overhead; the barbed wire fence synonymous with trench warfare suddenly lights up to frame vaudevillian sketches. Steve Mayo’s soundscape captures the relentless bombardment above as the soldiers continue life below.
James Dutton is immensely likable as Captain Roberts, whose irrepressible enthusiasm inspires a spoof advert asking ‘Are you suffering from optimism?’ His second in command is the rather more droll Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) whose pragmatism counters the ebullience of Roberts. Dutton and Kemp have an easy camaraderie and form a very engaging double act.
There is sterling support from Dan Mersh in multiple roles and Sam Ducane as Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, the humourless officer who finds the newspaper’s mockery of senior staff akin to treason. Emilia Williams as Roberts’ wife Kate sings beautifully and does her best to portray the perspective of those on the Home Front, although the part itself feels underwritten. Clio Davies has brief scenes as a variety of female roles; a brothel keeper, nurse, and aristocrat but none of the female characters ever really extend beyond stereotype, highlighting the wider issue that only Roberts and Pearson feel like fully rounded characters.
Hislop and Newman have clearly researched the newspaper and its creators extensively, therefore it does feel a shame that we don’t learn more of the soldier’s backgrounds, their lives before and after the war and the wider impact of The Wipers Times for its readers. The play flips between moments of all-out comedy and moments of real pathos, such as a young officer’s poem to the friend killed in action. The writers attempt to balance both and largely succeed, although one cannot help but wish it would occasionally go further in one direction or another, rather than constantly treading the line between the two.
With jokes and sketches derived directly from the real newspaper, some of these inevitably feel dated and the one-liners are amusing and never uproarious; however, the point is of course, that the men were making jokes at all.
Ultimately The Wipers Times is a remarkable story of the indomitable spirit that persisted despite the appalling conditions endured in the First World War and is told in an entertaining and inventive style.
Runs until 4 November 2017 | Image: Philip Tull