The Wipers Times by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman – Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre Production – New Wolsey Theatre till Saturday
As we remember the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme this year, where 420,000 British troops lost their lives to advance just a few hundred yards – it is fitting to be once again reminded of the extraordinary young men who managed to get through all the horror and come out the other side, and whose fortitude, bravery and inventiveness helped others to survive as well.
Ian Hislop is well known to most as the editor of Private Eye and panel member on ‘Have I Got News For You’. But he is also a respected writer and came across the story of this front line newspaper produced in the trenches of Ypres (pronounced ‘Wipers’ by the troops) 15 years before finally managing to get it to the stage.
In 1916 the soldiers of the 24th division of the Sherwood Foresters led by Captain Fred Roberts discover a printing press in the ruins of Ypres. Seeing the potential, Roberts and his lieutenant Jack Pearson come up with a plan to produce a journal of jokes and skits to cheer up the men on the front line. It became an instant hit and ran from then until just after the end of the war. Yet after that the paper fell into obscurity and was largely forgotten – neither man getting their deserved obituary in The Times when they died.
Over the years there has been a surfeit of moving and poignant plays about WW1 including ‘Journey’s End’,’ All Quiet on the Western Front’ and the recent ‘Bird Song’ and ‘War Horse’. Hislop and Newman have chosen to take the comic angle and show the gallows humour that kept the young lads going in the face of mud, blood, bombs and bullets that made their lives a living hell.
‘The Wipers Times’ is best described as a brilliant cross between ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and ‘Blackadder’. Its a slick, witty, laugh out loud, moving tribute to two men who refused to be brow beaten by either their commanding officers or the German artillery into giving up on what became one of the major life lines that kept both the soldiers and those at home from giving up.
On a flexible set that serves as a trench, a cafe, and the staff office as well as a music hall stage this wonderful company play out both the story of the paper and the fortunes of the men who ran it interspersed with jokes, sketches and music hall turns inspired by the paper’s contents.
James Dutton as Roberts and George Kemp as Pearson are perfect – totally believable as friends and colleagues in the context of the time. They are ably supported by the rest of this young company – most in their first roles since graduating from drama school – but belying their apparent lack of experience on stage with superb performances.
Director Caroline Leslie righty keeps the pace moving – and the transitions between scenes, skits and songs are slick, well managed and seamless.
This is a totally absorbing production that takes you in to this world where the constant barrage of artillery and unmitigated disaster produced by the short-sighted orders of the top brass could be survived by comradeship, humour and a large tot of whisky.
It’s never sad or maudlin, but in turn equally respectful, as amongst the laughter the tragedy is never far away. It is a fine tribute to all those who lost their lives, and to those who returned home to find that the world had moved on without them.
If you don’t see another play this year see this one. Probably the best thing to tour this year – and certainly the best production I’ve ever seen about WW1.