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Keep Up the Offensive, Chaps! Wipers’ Times

by on 27 September 2017

The Wipers Times

by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre

at Richmond Theatre until 30th September

Review by Mark Aspen

Whiz Bang! Earlier this month, when I was driving back home through Europe, I stayed overnight near Verdun.  In the drizzle the next morning, I passed Douaumont, an area which had been in the thick of the longest-fought single battle of the First World War.  There stands an impressive tower over 150ft tall, shaped like an artillery shell, standing on massive cloister which stretches out east to west.  This cloister, 450ft long, contains the shattered bones of at least 130,000 human beings, unidentified combatants in the battle.  This place, more than the serried ranks crosses over the graves of 16,000 known soldiers, the remains of the once-thriving village, or the thought that 160,000 men from that battle remain missing, spoke for me of the futility of this conflict.  The Douaumont Ossuary resembles the hilt of a gigantean sword thrust into the earth.

Therefore I had doubts when asked to review a satirical play about the First Word War, The Wipers Times.  Wipers was the Tommies’ anglicised pronunciation of the Belgian town of Ypres, notorious as the site of a series of battles throughout the whole of the war, which claimed the lives of millions of men.  Four hundred miles from Verdun, I had seen the Menin Gate, poignant memorial to the Battle of Ypres, where hundreds of thousands of Tommies fell.

The Wipers Times is however, not so much a satirical play, but a play about satire.  A squad of sappers finds an old printing press in a ruined building and decides to produce a paper for the troops.  It became a light-hearted medley of parodies, poems, and puns, full of Punch -style cartoons that aimed to lift the spirits of the men in the trenches, not a newspaper with the harsh news of the war.  Steadfastly breezy, often subversive, but full of trench humour, it was both read on the frontline and produced on the frontline.

The Wipers Time 3-Photographer Philip Tull-118

Written by broadcaster Ian Hislop and cartoonist Nick Newman, both established journalists, The Wipers Times steers the fine line between trivialising the epic losses of the war and missing the irrepressible stoicism and good humour that provided a vital uplift to those horrifically involved.  The writing is full of sensitivity and understanding yet delivers stacks of, let’s face it, very funny moments.

The Wipers Times 2-Photographer Philip Tull-124

How do you create an interesting setting that is all brown: mud, khaki, muck, wood?  Designer Dora Schweitzer achieves this in a versatile set that works seamlessly with the action, using multiple levels.  The claustrophobia of the trenches is contrasted with the wide open skyscape beyond.  It hints at an opera set (Schweitzer studied with Alison Chitty’s Motley Theatre Design).   Combined with lighting designer James Smith’s clever coloured highlighting, we have bright flashes into the world of music hall as the squaddies enact the spoofs in their newspaper, or when we move with their imaginations from the brown world of their reality.

The Wipers Times 1 - Photograph by Alastair Muir

War is far from quiet, and sound designer Steve Mayo has worked with composer Nick Green to re-create this world.  The music is tense, impatient.  The rat-tat-tat of the machine gun merges into the rat-tat-tat of the typewriter.  The omnipresent sound is of shells bursting all around.  Oddly, for the soldiers it is silence that spells danger: the moment before going over the top.

Ironically, it is at these moments when we realise that the therapeutic effect of humour, indeed as the officer in charge of the sappers says “It is having a sense of humour that helps us survive”.

Hislop and Newman’s characters are all drawn from real people and true events.  It is almost verbatim theatre in that much of the dialogue is taken from copies of The Wipers Times itself.

The play is parenthesised by Fred Roberts in a job interview after the war.  He is unable to get a position as a journalist, in spite of having been the editor of The Wipers Times.  Previously a mining engineer, Captain Roberts was awarded the Military Cross during the war.  In a strong performance, James Dutton plays Roberts as a warm up-beat character with great charisma.  The chary and more reflective Lieutenant Jack Pearson is played with great insight by George Kemp.  Together, Dutton and Kemp live these characters portraying a grasp of their mutual loyalty under the old-school tie public-school camaraderie. Pearson also won the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.

Their NCO is Sergeant Tyler, a printer in civvy-street, and one who knows his trade backwards, in a “we’ll soon get this double-movement-manual-feed Blogs and Blogson pattern-actuated press that we found wrecked in the rubble working again” sort of way.  Dan Mersh not only portrays the fearless Tyler with great panache, but with remarkable versatility also acts the Deputy Editor who interviews Roberts after the war, and also the bluff General Mitford.

Mitford understood the ironies of war and its reality.  He empathised with his troops, and thought the humour of The Wipers Times was good for morale.   Not all his high command were so relaxed about this periodical, which made fun of the ineptitude of the staff officers in conducing the war.  Many thought it reeked of subordination and even treason, and was certainly bad for morale.  One such officer was Lieutenant-Colonel Howfield, young and zealous.  Sam Ducane’s Howfield fairly bristles with indignation at all that this subversive paper stands for.  The staff officers go off inspect the troops, urging their troops not to get bogged down in the trenches and to attack the enemy, asking, “Are we as offensive as we might be?”.  Roberts immediately embraced this as the slogan for The Wipers Times, encouraging all its contributors “to be as offensive as possible”.

When our squaddies present some of the contributions in song and dance, we see the influence of the music hall, as we are lifted to another side of their lives very different from the trenches.  This technique may have been used before as in Oh What a Lovely War, but The Wipers Times manages it without being irreverent or dishonouring the fallen.   So no-man’s-land becomes a different place.  Musical director Paul Herbert, and movement director Emily Holt, have created concise vignettes which work with energy and humour.  In these musical interludes, the cast work very much as an ensemble, but without losing the individuality of each of the soldiers.

The Wipers Times 5- Photograph by Alastair Muir

The effect of war on families left at home is underlined in a scene when Roberts, briefly on leave for the award of the MC, is dining at The Ritz (which he cannot afford) with his wife, Kate. There is a change of mood as he reflects on the dangers.  He is worried, not about being killed, but of returning badly wounded.  Kate replies “Half of you is better than twice another man”, whatever the “vilest disaster”.  Emilia Williams’ portrayal of Kate shows great depth and this moment is particularly moving.

There are indeed many moving moments in this play, but what shines through is the British resolve never to complain but to “make do and mend”, however extreme the circumstances. There is native understatement: describing grenades as “used to cause annoyance to any luckless person who happens to be near them”.  And it is that British sense of humour that can change the focus away from the pain.  As one of soldiers says of The Wipers Times, “It is important because it is not important”.

At one point, when Col. Howfield reads disapprovingly from the newspaper an article that which makes Gen. Mitford laugh, Howfield asks him what he finds so funny.  Mitford replies “It’s a lot funnier than what I’m reading at the moment.”  He is studying the casualty lists.    This maybe explains why, when the Armistice is declared, it is greeted with a sort of anti-climax.  “Shouldn’t we be celebrating?”, asks Roberts.

The Wipers Times - Photograph by Alastair Muir

Looking today at the hundreds of thousands of war graves that spread out beyond the Menin Gate, across the battlefields of Ypres, we can understand what he means.

Notwithstanding the tragic and futile losses, and whilst recognising them with honour, The Wipers Times is a play that takes a different viewpoint, and recognises, with real people who were actually there, the importance that humour played in survival, at least survival of the spirit, in the horror of large-scale war.  Whiz Bang!

Mark Aspen

September 2017

Photographs by Alastair Muir and Philip Tull



  1. e-mail elizabethwait permalink

    Very good, a excellent read


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