The Wipers Times at Arts Theatre
The stage adaptation of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s TV film The Wipers Times is a thoroughly British affair –and a jolly well performed one, too. Telling the real story of a group of soldiers during the First World War who create a satirical newspaper named after the Tommy bastardisation of the Belgian town Ypres where they are stationed, it combines bold yet sensitive writing and seamless comedic performances to produce a resounding theatrical success.
Heading up the troops tonight is James Dutton, who handles the jocular editor-in-chief Captain Roberts and his array of witticisms and punning with an earnest confidence. His opposing force, Sam Ducane employs flustered physicality and a fantastically overdrawn Edwardian accent in an energetic lampoon of officious wartime bureaucracy, with both performances balanced by Dan Mersh, who displays tremendous versatility in his three distinct roles. However, in the spirit of the men at the front, the strength of the show truly lies in the camaraderie of the bawdy ensemble as they act out the sketches and poems featured in the newspaper, which darkly re-enact the tragedy of trench warfare to irreverent song and dance.
Many of the jokes are literal excerpts from the original publication, and their ability to resound with a 21st-century audience speaks not only to the ability of the actors, but also the enduring timelessness of laughter in the face of despair. The gallows humour pioneered in the Wipers Times – now seen as a precursor to satirical publications like Private Eye – keenly demonstrates that the subversive and absurdist sensibility we frequently see employed in contemporary comedy was indeed bred on the fields of Flanders.
The varying nature of truth on the western front is cleverly explored, with consideration given to the state of contemporary journalism, and cheap but welcomed shots at the insidious reporting of the Daily Mail elicited an expected laughter from the audience. Defending the humour of The Wipers Times as both a necessity for moral upkeep and an equally valid account of the wartime effort, Caroline Leslie’s effective direction uses the small size of the Arts Theatre to reflect the intimacy of the relationships forged within the enormity of the war.
One thing that shall certainly prevail in the public consciousness of WWI is the ability of the British to maintain a sense of humour in stark, trying times. Tonight’s show, with its array of fine comedic performances, is a skilled reminder that what separates civilisation and barbarity is perhaps not efficient bureaucracy nor military strategy, but laughter.
Photo: Kirsten McTernan
The Wipers Times is at Arts Theatre from 16th October until 1st December 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.