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The Wipers Times

"The Wipers Times is a subversive attack on the entire High Command."
— Lieutenant Colonel Howfield
The Wipers Times
James Dutton as Captain Fred Roberts and, in the foreground, George Kemp as Lieutenant Jack Pearson
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
The co-writer of The Wipers Times is Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, a British satirical magazine which pokes fun at the Establishment but which has also exposed some serious political scandals including the excessive expenses claimed by members of parliament and the contaminated blood given to patients in the 1970s and 80s. As we look at the century since the ending of the First World War, the Armistice, what better time to reflect on life in the trenches?

Many of the centenary plays concentrate on the terrible conditions and the loss of so many men but while conveying the conditions in the trenches, The Wipers Times also looks at what cultural influences raised the spirit of the men for whom boredom was an issue. The obvious ones are music hall and song as the mass media of the day.

The truly remarkable story of this trenches based newspaper is not a fiction but a truth. These men actually existed and we have today copies of the newspaper they produced which were reprinted in book form. The play is framed by Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) in a civvy suit applying for a job after the war at a conventional newspaper.

Dora Schweitzer's detailed set is clearly in the trenches, with makeshift wooden planks supporting the dug out and barbed wire coiled on the wall. The sound scape brings explosions as the sound of canon fire is heard close by. The play opens near the Belgium town of Ypres (said EE-pr' by the Belgians) but anglicised by the British soldiers to "Wipers". In a clever staging, numerous music hall songs and sketches are interspersed with scenes from the dug out using the back wall as a stage. It is a splendid integration and strings together very well with admirable fluidity.

Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp) start the "Wipers Times" when in the rubble of the shelled town of Ypres, Sergeant Tyler (Dan Mersh) finds a printing press. Having been a printer in civvy life on Fleet Street Sergeant Tyler can get the machine working. One wit describes their paper as "Punch except with jokes!"

The High Command are encouraging "optimism" and a sketch of pop up optimism ridicules this directive against the daily stagnation and inertia. "The entire 24th division have gained only 10 yards in the last six months," informs Captain Roberts. Interesting for we theatre buffs is that one of the 24th Division is a young chap called Sherriff, who later writes the play Journey's End where earwig racing is discussed to alleviate the boredom.

They hear the Germans singing the "Hate Song" and determine to answer more positively. Sam Ducane as Lieutenant Colonel Howfield provides much of the humour as he struts around representing the unsympathetic High Command and accusing "The Wipers Times" of subversion. General Mitford (Dan Mersh) has a better sense of humour. I liked the music hall routines and the sung numbers. They get endless poems sent in for publication and one is a realistic version of Kipling's poem "If".

Despite being written so many years later and having started as a BBC television drama, The Wipers Times is an excellent evening in the theatre with humour mixed with the background of terrible conditions and loss of life of the authentic war. We are told in the play that Captain Roberts, later Lieutenant Colonel Roberts, wins the Military Cross for his fighting in the Battle of the Somme. The contribution of these so called amateur journalists is admirable both for the diversion of their paper and their heroism.

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The Wipers Times
Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Directed by Caroline Leslie
Starring: Sam Ducane, James Dutton, George Kemp, Dan Mersh
With: Amar Aggoun, Kevin Brewer, Clio Davies, Chris Levens, Joseph Reed, Emilia Williams
Design: Dora Schweitzer
Sound Design: Steve Mayo
Lighting Design: James Smith
Composer: Nick Green
Movement Director: Emily Holt
Musical Director: Paul Herbert
Running time: Two Hours 10 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Booking to 1st December 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th October 2018 performance at the Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB (Tube: Leicester Square)
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