Arts Theatre – until 1 December
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
As the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War One approaches, The Wipers Times returns to the West End after a national tour. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play about this extraordinary publication is a wonderful celebration and memorial for the humour, spirit and bravery of the men and women of WW1.
When the men of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters come across a printing press in a bomb-damaged building in Ypres, their commanding officer, Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) decides to start their own front line newspaper. With Lt Jack Pearson (George Kemp) as deputy editor and Sgt Tyler (Dan Mersh) using his civilian expertise to run the press the Wipers Times was born.
Hislop and Newman’s clever script blends with original articles from the publication, full of terrible puns, poetry and satirical comment. Adverts, poems and articles are presented as music halls sketches and songs by the brilliantly tight cast, escalating the sense of bewilderment and incredulity of the men at the reality of war. The set feels as if it was built by soldiers, with every inch serving a practical purpose at some stage of the play. Wooden planks serve as the walls of bombed out buildings or trenches, and the cast move props around as they sing more ridiculous war songs.
The humour veers between laugh out loud one liners, dad jokes and infantile humour, but it all works brilliantly. The officers of the General Staff are most abused, and quite rightly, and the Wipers Times main nemesis, Lt Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane) and his Captain – nicknamed Bobbing Bobby – are instantly familiar to Blackadder fans, but are exactly what the plot needs. The home front is represented by Frank’s wife (Emilia Williams) and her news of their chickens, and the indomitable Lady Somersby (Clio Davies), determined to drive the demon drink from the trenches. The camaraderie on stage is infectious, with the entire cast giving stellar performances.
Amongst the laughs are some harrowing moments, always tempered by an inappropriate laugh – the standouts being when the men are preparing to go over the top at the Somme. The horrors of war are always present, with the sound of artillery and debris from falling bombs scattering the stage, but the way the men coped with these dreadful times by looking for the humour and ridiculousness of their day to day existence speaks to us all. The running joke about the amount of poetry submitted by soldiers reminds us that the publication of the Wipers Times is as emotionally and historically important as the more “noble” works of the WW1 poets, presenting us with the long-forgotten reality that soldiers’ camaraderie and humour is very difficult to extinguish, even in the nightmare of the trenches.
The Wipers Times is a fascinating and life-affirming story told with humour and anarchic energy that the original editors adored. A wonderful way to celebrate the Armistice centenary – pack up your troubles and get to the Arts Theatre.