“The war is not funny, sir.”
“I’ve a feeling that may be the point.”
Deep in the muddy trenches of the First World War amongst the whiz bangs, the artillery fire and the heavy shelling from the Fritz, Captain Fred Roberts and his band of merry men – the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters – discover a printing press amongst the ruins in Ypres that allowed them to write about a very different experience of life on the front line:
The Wipers Times.
Unable to pronounce the Belgian name, Wipers is henceforth how it became known to our Tommies in the trenches, and with the help of his printer Sergeant Roberts and his Lieutenant Jack Pearson, Captain Roberts produced a tongue in cheek, satirical newspaper full of puns and jokes to distribute to their fellow men. The newspaper provided little in the way of describing trench life or the intricacies of the war, but instead made fun of the real press who incorrectly reported on what was happening without having set foot there themselves, made fun of the high commanding officers and also provided a salute to their fallen comrades. The newspaper used spoof advertisements, fake agony aunt columns and contained poems and songs akin to those found in the popular music-halls of the time.
No one is interested in the First World War. That’s what Nick Newman and Ian Hislop were told when they first pitched the idea of The Wipers Times to a film company almost fifteen years ago, and perhaps that is true of how some modern audiences think. Just another play, another film, another TV show set in the ‘war-time’ era and addressing the same issues. But ‘just another’ war-time play this is not. Based on a true story and co-written by Ian Hislop (editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News For You) and Nick Newman (satirical British cartoonist and comedy writer) the play is engaging and hilarious from start to finish.
The unimaginable (yet true!) story of front line war soldiers finding a printing press, writing, producing and distributing their own paper is told brilliantly, whilst all the tragic, delicate and moving moments are woven seamlessly through the narrative.
Captain Roberts played by James Dutton commands the stage as the leading man who keeps his men entertained with his quips and perfect comedy timing. Dutton allows Captain Roberts to be vulnerable, portraying a man who perhaps disguises his fear with humor, who is not only scared of the impending threat from enemy lines but also of coming home, of what is left for him after the war is over. And this theme is pertinent; what is left after the endless days filled with the same scenery, the same people, and the same routine? Back to ‘civvy-street’ with no real sense of purpose once the incessant war was over. This and other themes of war are dealt with spectacularly in the writing and the staging of the play.
The set is simple; a mixture of tarpaulin, sand bags, barbed wire and other war paraphernalia but is moved around seamlessly to create new spaces by the troops who sing with each scene transition. Without wanting to give away any magical comedy moments the barbed wire fairly light staging where the company act out some of the comedy advertisements listed in the newspaper is a real treat, along with the musical hall routines dotted throughout the main narrative. Another particular highlight is Sam Ducane’s hilarious portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Howfield who believes The Wipers Times is treasonable and offensive. George Kemp plays Lieutenant Pearson, Captain Roberts’ right hand man, and their on-stage relationship is a joy to watch, complimented by Dan Mersh and his depiction of Sergeant Tyler, the deputy editor of the newspaper.
The Wipers Times was a hit with the troops suffering through the horrors of war in the trenches and from 1916 to the end of the war an incredible 23 issues were made, and based on this play it is not difficult to see why. Captain Roberts and his brave troops (who also provided material that made it into the various editions of the paper) told a very different story of the Great War than the history books and their accounts of the death, tragedy, uselessness and ineptitude of the war. The Wipers Times instead provided a beacon of light in the darkness, celebrating the bravado amongst the men and brashly describing the
absurdity and tragedy of their everyday lives through the satire that seeped from the pages.
Do you need a good dose of laughter? Then try The Wipers Times, the satirical laugh-out-loud play that is hilarious, moving, but not too ‘over the top’.