I watched The Wipers Times sat next to a 24 year old who loves listening to her CD of Songs That Won the War in the car. “I loved it,” she told me mid-applause during the curtain call. She liked that the show wasn’t “trying to be cutting edge”. She cited “familiarity” as one of its excellent qualities.
Unlike me, she had not seen the TV version of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s story screened in 2014 and was unacquainted with the unusual story the writers explore. In the middle of the First World War, the men from the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters discovered a printing press. As luck would have it, their Sergeant happened to be a printer, able to operate it. Accordingly, Captain Fred Roberts and his Lieutenant decided to start up a satirical newspaper – one written, edited and published straight from the trenches.
It’s easy to see how Private Eye editor and general joke-cracker Hislop would be drawn to this narrative, and his dedication to bringing the story to public attention is commendable. The Wipers Times had been consigned to relative obscurity, but the TV programme and now this play have salvaged the legacy of these canny editors and their writers.
So, why “familiar”? The Wipers Times has clearly been influenced by other sardonic treatments of WW1. The speech is reminiscent of a TV show: each sentence has a clear purpose, whether furthering the plot, delivering a pun or explaining the importance of satire during wartime. This polished quality, alongside the comedic rhythms of the dialogue, has the air of a sitcom. Blackadder is present here, and the sketches and bursts of song clearly pay homage to Oh What a Lovely War! The story is niche. But the methods of telling it are tried and tested.
This familiarity provides for some really lovely entertainment. The silly dramatisations of The Wipers Times‘ spoof adverts provide the heartiest laughs in the show. The banter allows George Kemp to shine as Lieutenant Pearson – his comic timing and genuinely warm mirth makes him a pleasure to watch. The characterisation of Bobbing Bobby, a humourless member of staff who calls to mind Captain Darling, provides a perfect (if not wholly original) foil to the joking soldiers. There are moments of poignancy nestled among the jokes, and these are moving, if recognisable: a soldier reading out a poem to his fallen “chum” will always ache an audience member’s heart, even if we’ve read and heard such poems many times before.
The Wipers Times is a play where everything is quite on the surface. General Mitford explains the importance of the newspaper in clear terms; Captain Roberts talks honestly about his emotions to his wife. We are told quite a lot, which makes the show incredibly easy to watch. As an audience, we don’t have to work very hard.
However, the best scene of the play demonstrated the power of showing, rather than telling. The division come across a group of dead Germans, who have been killed by their own gas. At first, they are almost sombre, as they take in the terrible sight before them. Then, slowly – slowly – they start making jokes. The smiles on their faces are tempered by the awfulness of the scene in front of them, yet still, they try to find the humour in this humorless situation.
Of course, they have been doing this the whole play, so why does this scene stand out so much? Perhaps because here we see the transition from horror to humour, and witnessing this transition is interesting, thrilling, haunting. There was room in this play to explore these moments of transition a little more, to add further moments of gallows humour and pathos.
There are, however, some issues with the sound – some of the song interludes and MC speeches could do with a little more volume and clarity. The shell explosions could be louder, to help immerse the audience in the awful din of which Private Dodd complains. But all this, of course, is easily corrected. What inspires most about the story of The Wipers Times is the power of creativity and humour to save us from even the most desperate of situations.
The Wipers Times is on at the Arts Theatre until 13th May 2017. Click here for more details.