Writers: Ian Hislop & Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: James Garrington
“Ask yourself the following questions. Do you suffer from cheerfulness? Do you think the war will end in the next twelve months? Do you have faith in our commanders to bring the war to a successful conclusion? Optimism! Two days at our establishment will eradicate all traces of it”
This sort of material is typical of the style of writing that could be found in the original Wipers Times. It was started early in 1916 when a group of soldiers came across a printing press and decided to use it to print a newspaper – not one full of news of the war, but one full of satire, jokes and comedy sketches designed to lift the morale of the troops in the front line. The existence of the paper was almost lost from public memory until relatively recently when Ian Hislop came across it, and decided that the story had the makings of a play.
The Wipers Times is not a story about the war – it is the story of a newspaper set against the backdrop of the war, and the script by Hislop and Nick Newman reflects the style of humour found in the newspaper. It’s not Oh What a Lovely War! either – it’s much lighter with more focus on comedy – but it has some similarities in the feel and delivery on stage, suddenly jumping out of the story into a comedy sketch or Music Hall style song and dance routine. The comedy, which is plentiful and very funny, is satirical and full of clever wordplay.
The play is delivered by an ensemble cast of 10 playing a variety of roles, with James Dutton (Captain Roberts) and George Kemp (Lieutenant Pearson) playing the most prominent characters. Both portrayals reflect the sort of subversive and dry humour that you might expect from Army officers who decide that they’re going to spend their time publishing a comedy periodical. These are the sort of people whose response to the Temperance movement is to open a bar in the trenches, who become so immersed in what they’re doing that even when home on leave with his wife, all Roberts can talk about is the newspaper – a rare moment of poignancy in the play, nicely delivered by Dutton.
Among the universally strong cast, there are other memorable performances too. Dan Mersh plays Sergeant Tyler, a man with a down-to-earth practicality concealing his obvious courage. Mersh also plays General Mitford, one of the few on the General Staff to understand the benefits of the newspaper, while his aide Howfield is brilliantly played by Sam Ducane in a portrayal that is so ludicrously stereotyped and over-the-top that it becomes hilarious.
Songs appear throughout the play, with original music written by Nick Green that sounds so authentic that you could easily believe the songs were from the period. The songs are largely satirical and delivered with a comedy put-across style but hidden in there is a lovely gentle number beautifully delivered by Emilia Williams, giving time for a moment’s reflection amid the quick-fire comedy and dialogue.
With a show programme that’s also full of Wipers Times original material, this is a view of war seen through the eyes of a trench newspaper, and it’s memorable, irreverent and extremely funny. It’s akin to Oh What a Lovely War! meets Blackadder meets Private Eye and if you fancy a change from the usual Great War stories, then make sure you catch The Wipers Times.
Runs Until 29 September 2018 | Image: Philip Tull