The Wipers Times at the Arts Theatre
“The war is not funny, Sir,” says one high-ranking officer – or brass hat, as the Tommies would have them – to the other. “I’ve a feeling that may be the point,” the other responds. The Wipers Times began life 15 years ago as a TV film treatment, became a play that never got finished, then got picked up for television a few years ago before finally making its way back to the stage. It has recently transferred to the West End following a sell-out tour; given the piece’s knack for gallows humour, its evocative portrayal of the struggles of trench warfare, and remarkable sincerity, it isn’t hard to see why.
Written by Ian Hislop (of Private Eye fame) and Nick Newman (cartoonist for the same publication), The Wipers Times tells the story of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters and the newspaper they create while in the trenches of the First World War. But far from being a sober description of the horrors of daily life, the men instead agree to write a funny, irreverent and uplifting publication that the soldiers all take immediately to heart. Named after the privates’ mispronunciation of Ypres, where they are stationed, the paper is called “The Wipers Times”.
Captain Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) shine as the magazine’s creators, two have-a-go heroes looking to add some much-needed laughter into the lives of their squadron. Dan Tetsell, who plays their laconic Deputy Editor, is also a stand out. But the ensemble cast, performing the sketches, songs, poems and advertisements that made the newspaper so well-loved, are a hoot. For a production that is set in the trenches of the Great War, it is incredibly funny. But neither does it pull any punches – given its subject matter it would be remiss to attempt to dilute it, and the denouement is as sombre and touching as anything.
Director Caroline Leslie and producer Bob Benton have captured the tone perfectly: the piece is part Oh! What a Lovely War!, part Blackadder Goes Forth and part gritty biopic. Hislop and Newman even manage to get in a few cracks about the Daily Mail – as if they would miss any opportunity to berate shoddy and pernicious journalism in all its forms. Besides this though, The Wipers Times is an excellent show and one that will leave audiences smiling from the jokes, but also from the hope that the play generates. It succeeds in showing the undeniable optimism of the human spirit, and has been rightly commended for it.
Photos: Alastair Muir
The Wipers Times is at the Arts Theatre from 21st March until 13th May 2017. Book your tickets here.