The First World War news-sheet/magazine “The Wipers Times” was a kind of “Private Eye” for the trench wallah, a prequel-Viz for the Kitchener Kids, a “Punch” for Tommy Atkins but, as is suggested in the text of this show, a “Punch” that is actually funny. The “Private Eye” analogy is apposite, of course, as the play The Wipers Times is co-written by long-time editor of that august organ, Ian Hislop, and its evergreen, award-winning cartoonist, Nick Newman.
Hislop discovered the long-forgotten “Wipers Times” whilst researching a historical documentary and there began a fifteen-year peregrination to reach, finally, journey’s end here at the Arts Theatre. Initially a film treatment, the writers had so many rejections that they decided to write it as a stage play.
Part-way through this they were suddenly contacted by the BBC who commissioned a 90-minute film as part of the Great War anniversary programming in 2014. So with audience acclaim, nominations and awards in their old kit-bag they hitched it on again and, with 100-year-old trench humour ringing in their ears, they returned to write their play. I’m glad they did.
Like the original editors of “The Wipers Times” Hislop and Newman have to tread a fine line between humour and tragedy, telling the jokes, cocking the snooks, indulging the comedy routines whilst respecting the dignity, commemorating the lives and saluting the memory of the fallen of the Great War – all 17 million of them. They achieve this and thus we have a play that is funny and sad, whimsical and true, thoughtful and uplifting. And to
make all this happen we have an outstanding cast who draw us in, take us back, entertain us like the troops were entertained and provide grist for the ponder-mill whilst the events of 1916 are still very, very scary. The result is a careful melange of gas and gaiters, music hall meets muck and bullets, and Variety is, perhaps, the spice of death.
Wise-cracking, brass-needling, loveably rakish Captain Fred Roberts, editor of the paper, is played with great empathy by James Dutton. Exquisite comic timing combined with a feel for the common touch get us all on his side from the get-go. His puns and asides and his not-quite- insubordination are furnished with a deft touch by Dutton who gives the impression he’s got a wonderful secret that he wants to share with everyone – except for the brass hats. Captain Roberts is aided and abetted in his war within a war by Lieutenant Jack Pearson, deftly played by George Kemp. Kemp is one of those unselfish actors who underplays his own performance to enhance the roles of others – particularly Captain Roberts in this instance. He is a calming influence under fire – real and manufactured by the powers that be – and he is the necessary check on the more provocative ideas of his Captain. This is a subtle and refined performance by Kemp – a virtuoso foil to Dutton’s Captain Roberts – and together they make an admirable double-act.
In a male dominated play we have a scattering of nurses, an alluring Madame Fifi (Clio Davies) and Roberts’s wife Kate, acted with mesmeric charm by Emilia Williams. As well as her beautifully haunting song, Williams give us a
sympathetic and welcome insight into how the home fires were kept burning, with her chicken pun showing just how her husband’s slightly dodgy humour had rubbed off on her.
How do you make the words from a hundred-year- old trench newspaper come alive on stage? You can’t just read them out for the length of the show so the rest of this excellent cast of cannon fodder make frequent visits to
Vaudevillia to illustrate the songs, the poems, the letters, the cod war correspondents, the armchair commentators and the sharp satirical depictions of life at the front for the ordinary soldier. These cocksure and colourful interludes bring “The Wipers Times” to life and is a clever way of communicating its unpretentious ethos to the modern audience. This gallant troupe of troopers is expansively directed by Caroline Leslie who has a real feel for the history of the piece. She is ably assisted by James Smith’s evocative lighting design and an excellent soundscape by Steve Mayo. Dora Schweitzer’s engaging and functional set design serves the production well and Leslie’s decision to accompany the frequent but polished scene changes with songs by the cast as they go about their business is a masterstroke. I was a little worried though when clouds of dust and plaster fell from on high, that we might be re-experiencing the ceiling shenanigans that unfortunately befell the Apollo Theatre in 2013. Happily it was staged.
Ultimately, what we have here is a well-researched and highly informative historical document that can take its richly-deserved place alongside R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, arguably the greatest war play ever written, as an invaluable resource for all those who wish to find out about the Great War. It seems appropriate that Sherriff was a contributor to The Wipers Times, though his fame lived, and still lives, long after the war, unlike the paper’s leading lights. Hislop and Newman have ensured, I believe, that the forgotten editors of “The Wipers Times”, Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson, along with all the contributors, should for ever be remembered.
Besides that The Wipers Times is a lovely play in its own right – and I count myself lucky to have been in the audience on World Theatre Day.
Review by Peter Yates
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s The Wipers Times – a stage adaptation of their award-winning BBC film – tells the true and extraordinary story of the satirical newspaper created in the mud and mayhem of the Somme, interspersed with comic sketches and spoofs from the vivid imagination of those on the front line.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman said:
“We thought it would all be over by Christmas – but we are delighted that following a sell-out tour, The Wipers Times continues with a run at the Arts Theatre. A hundred years after World War 1, London audiences will have a chance to see this forgotten true story about a satirical trench newspaper and discover that the black humour of The Wipers Times is still remarkably fresh, funny and poignant. We are thrilled that it ‘s not going to be all quiet on the West End Front…”
In a bombed out building during the First World War in the Belgian town of Ypres (mispronounced Wipers by British soldiers), two officers discover a printing press and create a newspaper for the troops.
Far from being a sombre journal about life in the trenches they produced a resolutely cheerful, subversive and very funny newspaper designed to lift the spirits of the men on the frontline.
Defying enemy bombardment, gas attacks and the disapproval of many of the top Brass, The Wipers Times rolled off the press for two years and was an extraordinary tribute to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity.
The production takes place one hundred years after the Battle of the Somme and publication of The Wipers Times.
The cast includes Kevin Brewer (Henderson), James Dutton (Roberts), George Kemp (Pearson), Jake Morgan (Barnes) and Dan Tetsell (General Mitford). The Wipers Times is directed by Caroline Leslie.
The Wipers Times
By Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Based on a true story
Directed by Caroline Leslie
Designed by Dora Schweitzer
Lighting designed by James Smith
Sound designed by Steve Mayo
Composer Nick Green
Musical Director Paul Herbert
Tuesday 21 March – Saturday 13 May 2017