Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s The Wipers Times is a witty, fast-paced and well-performed frolic through Flanders Fields.
“There’s nothing funny about the war”: so says one austere general of the British High Command. Quite right he is too. Though by the time the audience hear this line, many are already wiping tears from their eyes – not at the men’s great sacrifice, but at their great humour.
The Wipers Times, written by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and his long-time collaborator writer & cartoonist Nick Newman, is the incredible true story of the satirical magazine produced by a group of soldiers in the spring of 1916, at Ypres. (That’s Ypres – otherwise known as Wipers, to the Tommies unable to pronounce it.)
This play is a nimble telling of the story of the soldiers of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters led by Captain Fred Roberts. In-keeping with the spirit of the magazine, Caroline Leslie’s production is part cabaret and part sketch-show, with the mile-a-minute pacing you would expect of a newsroom under enemy fire. The jokes – many verbatim from the original Wipers Times – fly at the speed of the ‘whizzbangs’ dropping around the men.
The cast play to their strengths to deliver an exhilarating ensemble effort. James Dutton as Captain Roberts/editor-in-chief and George Kemp as Lieutenant Pearson/sub-editor command with their playful handling of public school wit and banter. Gregariously cartoonish sketches spark up behind them, and between scenes, executed with vivacity by their men: Amar Aggoun, Kevin Brewer, Chris Levens and Joseph Reed.
Fast-paced transitions are handled seamlessly by the cast who sing while changing position (just as the soldiers did) – another thoughtful detail that helps immerse us in their world. The songs are ditties about the women waiting back home, odes to whiskey and other light-hearted limericks. In one poignant moment, the group listen to the song being sung by Fritz (the Germans): a bitter ‘hymn of hate’ for the English.
This jolly play contains a cheerful answer to a terrifying question: how would you cope with the horrors of war? For these men, it was with plenty of laughter and plenty of booze. True to the spirit of the magazine, The Wipers Times is subversive and a little absurd. Come, wade knee-deep in trench humour and marvel at the telling of this extraordinary story. As one general remarks, “even in war, blessed are the piss-takers.”