Watermill Theatre - The Wipers Times
22nd September to 29th October 2016.
Review from Newbury Theatre.
Fifteen years ago Ian Hislop came across the extraordinary story of The Wipers Times, a subversive and humorous look at the Great War, written and published as a newspaper on the front line at Ypres. Hislop and Nick Newman wrote a screenplay based on the true story but for ten years failed to get the film produced. While rewriting it as a stage play, the BBC latched onto it and in 2013 the film version was screened, winning a Best Single Drama award. This spurred them to complete the stage version, which now has its premiere at the Watermill.
With ancestors in Oh! What a Lovely War! and Blackadder Goes Forth, but without the anti-war sentiment, The Wipers Times is an inspiring story of British humour being used to raise morale and counteract the Germans' humourless 'Über Alles' songs and sentiments.
And what we get is a well-written, very funny and entertaining show with songs, accompanying the ups and downs of a small group of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters at Ypres and the Somme between 1916 and 1918.
Leading the group is Captain Roberts (James Dutton, in a charismatic performance showing Roberts' unquenchable self-confidence and determination) assisted by Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp, providing a good literary sparring partner). Key to the operation is Sergeant Tyler, a printer before joining the army, played with aplomb by Dan Tetsell who also plays the Staff Officer General Mitford and the editor of a London daily paper.
The other Staff Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, is played by Sam Ducane, a nice portrayal of a senior officer continually being thwarted by Roberts.
The other ranks get their best moments in the music hall songs and, er… dances. There are good character performances here, especially from Peter Losasso as Private Dodd. Eleanor Brown showed her versatility in a variety of roles from Temperance League champion to (moustachioed) ADC.
The poignant ending described the unexceptional lives of Roberts and Pearson after the war. And it wasn’t until the film came out in 2013 that they got obituaries in The Times.
The set, designed by Dora Schweitzer, was excellent. It morphed between trench, office, hospital, music hall and pop-up advertisement (you need to see it) with quick and smooth scene changes from the cast, enhanced by effective sound and lighting.
This was a funny, fast-paced and engaging show from director Caroline Leslie and the audience loved it. The prolonged applause at the end after the house lights had come up brought the slightly bemused cast back for another curtain call.
Review from The Times.
Woe betide the young hack who falls foul of Private Eye. Ian Hislop, the satirical magazine’s quick-spirited editor, has perhaps more of a public profile, but the comedy writer Nick Newman, with whom Hislop has been letting off literary whoopee cushions since school, is a mainstay of the cartoon pages, when not scripting for Dawn French, Harry Enfield and their like. The only consolation, therefore, in the task of detailing the turgid qualities of their latest collaboration is that I’m unlikely to be nominated for Private Eye’s Order of the Brown Nose.
Hislop and Newman have found appropriate heroes in this schoolboyish tale of satirical derring-do. The Wipers Times was a sardonic bog-sheet published by junior officers in the trenches of the First World War (“Wipers” being Tommy slang for Ypres). Originally a (better) BBC TV comedy featuring Michael Palin, it has been stripped down for this tour, beginning at the idyllic Watermill Theatre in Newbury.
There are moments of affection for the mechanics of print, especially at the almost sacral discovery of a Josiah Wade Arab printing press, left behind Belgian lines just in time to be discovered by our bunch of Brits. If only Hislop and Newman’s script taught us much about the content of the ensuing publication.
Instead it subjects us to the leaden life histories of a few thinly drawn Blackadder extras, burdened by a lumpen framing device in which the stiff-lipped Wipers Times editor, Captain Fred Roberts (a cardboard James Dutton), applies for a newspaper job after the war. Naturally the evil editor, hidebound as he is by portentously laboured commercial imperatives, doesn’t recognise his talent. “You are doomed, Dead Tree Press, DOOMED,” one almost hears Hislop bellow.
The most obvious sign that Hislop and Newman aren’t stage writers is that they have crammed the production with enough characters to stretch the salary budget of most fringe venues yet not one is given time to breathe and develop. The director, Caroline Leslie, at least does an admirable job of keeping them from overcrowding across the Watermill’s matchbox stage. The comic revues, dramatised from the original Wipers Times, are a delight — if only there were more.
Yet the plot drags. Dutton is given 2D lines and spins them into a 1D performance. Most disappointingly, from the figurehead of modern British satire, there’s no defence of why publications such as The Wipers Times matter, other than general muttering about morale. Almost in passing, we are told that the Germans feed on hate, the British on humour. Yet there’s no great cultural examination here. Only missed opportunity.
Review from the British Theatre Guide.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s splendid The Wipers Times is based on the true story of a satirical newspaper that was published during the First World War amidst the chaos and carnage of the Somme near the Belgium town of Ypres but mispronounced by the Tommies as “Wipers”.
The idea to cheer up the troops at the front with a subversive and witty paper that poked wry fun at the British high command, the press and the dreadful situation facing the soldiers was first mooted over 15 years ago as Hislop was working on a documentary for Radio 4.
It was made into a highly successful 90-minute award-winning film by the BBC in 2014 but was originally destined to be a stage play and triumphantly reaches fruition at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre.
When an old printing press is found in a bombed-out barn, it is quickly put to use to produce the paper, “something like Punch but with jokes,” says Captain Fred Roberts, impressively played by James Dutton, who becomes the editor, ably assisted by Lieutenant Jack Pearson, a strong performance by George Kemp.
Luckily, Sergeant Tyler, stoically performed by Dan Tetsell, was a printer before the war so the first of 23 editions was published much to the angst of the officious Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane) who believed that it had to be stopped despite it being a great hit with the troops who sent in many contributions and it also raised morale.
The play is told through poems, hilarious sketches and music hall songs by Nick Green with spoof adverts such as, “if you have trouble in finding a taxi cab to get you home, try ours—you will recognise them as they have red crosses on them.” Most certainly gallows humour.
The futility of war is abundantly portrayed as the regiment is moved round the Western Front only to end up back where they started in Ypres. Both Roberts and Pearson were mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.
Eleanor Brown plays a seductive Madame Fifi as well as a multitude of female characters and there is excellent support from Kevin Brewer as Henderson, Peter Losasso as Dodd and Jake Morgan as Barnes.
Dora Schweitzer’s atmospheric multi-level set perfectly captures the working conditions in the trench with a barbed wire fortification at the top. James Smith’s lighting was spot on, creating the bombardment of the battles together with Steve Mayo’s emotive soundscape.
Skilfully directed by Caroline Leslie, the courage displayed by the officers and soldiers despite gas attacks and horrendous hardship is vividly brought to the stage and the prolonged enthusiastic applause on press night was richly deserved.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
A gloriously British affair
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have 'em laughing in the trenches
The Wipers Times, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday October 29
In 1916, the discovery of a battered printing press was the means of bringing laughter into the lives of men involved in the appalling business of war.
The laughter continues. The Wipers Times will have you chuckling, even though the sound of bombs falling and the flashes off-stage are dramatically simulating the conflict taking place.
If this sounds bad taste, forget it. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's play is based on the true story of the 23 issues of the satirical magazine put together in response to the Germans' 'hymn of hate'. It is a gloriously British example of resilience, of the triumph of carrying on when the going gets not just rough, but so terrible the only thing to do is laugh.
Captain Roberts (James Button) hears about the press and orders it to be restored to produce The Wipers (Ypres) Times, With no journalistic experience, he and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp), with the help of ex-printer Sergeant Tyler (Dan Tetsell), manage to produce an ironic magazine packed with spoof ads, tongue-in-cheek features, jokes and poems. Roberts is inundated with poetry, but, as he is about to ban it, Dodd (Peter Losasso) gives him a simple poem saying goodbye to his mate Henderson (Kevin Brewer) who has died – not from his wounds, but from dehydration.
For, as in Blackadder, the laughs tumble along thick and fast, spiked by sudden poignant reminders of what is, as Roberts says "a war based on mud".
Not everyone approves of the Times – Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane) regards it as offensive. Roberts takes this as it not being offensive enough and carries on regardless.
The cast, including Jake Morgan as young soldier Barnes and Eleanor Brown playing all four female roles, bring the story in and out of the trenches to vivid life, punctuated by jolly roaring choruses in a magnificently complex set. Directed by Caroline Leslie, this is a play that, I have no doubt, the authors enjoyed writing. I am equally sure audiences will enjoy it just as much.
While writing this, I came across an advertisement for a trip to the Somme and other war graves. It included the following: 'There is plenty to experience here with the trenches which can be walked in, but they are a bit muddy underfoot.'
Review from The Telegraph.
Ian Hislop is best known as the editor of Private Eye as well as being a regular on Have I Got News for You. Yet I hope that won’t obscure the work he has done – together with cartoonist Nick Newman, his regular collaborator – to bring the story of The Wipers Times, arguably the most bravely assembled satirical rag in history, to the fore.
That a humorous newspaper was produced in the Great War trenches, initially at Ypres (hence its title), is the stuff of accessible knowledge. And yet Hislop and Newman’s fascination with this remarkable forerunner to the Eye and other mags of its ilk has vigorously pushed that knowledge our way. First there was their 2014 BBC Two screenplay; now this stage version.
A “bunch of amateurs” perfectly describes the editorial team mustered by Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters after having the whizzo idea of putting an old printing press to use.
What this play brilliantly conveys, without any sentimentality and with copious gags, is that the production of a few fragile pieces of paper came almost to matter more to those chaps involved than life itself. If the drawings, spoof ads, in-jokes and poems smack of puerility then isn’t that part of the poignancy? Many readers were barely out of school.
Both James Dutton as Captain Roberts and George Kemp as Pearson have the sort of good-egg demeanours that look of a piece with that bygone generation. The script moves at a rat-a-tat-tat lick, with no one sure they’ll make it to the next edition. Much of the material is rendered in the larky manner of music-hall vignettes, popping up in the no-man’s-land space above a replica dug-out. You leave with renewed admiration that somehow, in the teeth of horror and hellish slaughter, so many of “our boys” managed to grin and bear it.
There are reviews from What's On Stage ("elegantly structured, wonderfully theatrical and perfectly paced" - 5 stars), The Stage ("entertaining tribute to the maverick team behind the First World War trench newspaper" - 3 stars), TheatreCat (Libby Purves) ("a quite magnificent stage play... it is, in short, very very good"), Basingstoke Gazette ("a lively, upbeat and thoroughly entertaining show").